The House Girl by Tara Conklin
Published by William Morrow ISBN 978-0-06-224164-1
Hardcover, $25.99, 384 pages
Black History Month is wrapping up and I just finished a novel that fits in well with that celebration. Tara Conklin's debut novel, The House Girl first beckons to you with a stunningly beautiful cover; a silhouette of young woman against a serene green background of what looks like wallpaper, with birds and flowers.
While the cover pulls you in, it is the beautiful writing that urges you to keep reading. The story takes place in two time frames- 1852, where we meet Josephine, a 17-year-old house slave who cares for the ailing mistress of the house, LuAnn Bell. LuAnn is a painter, and from time to time she allows Josephine to paint as well.
LuAnn also taught Josephine how to read. Josephine yearns for freedom, and we discover throughout the story that she once tried to escape but was returned to her owners.
In 2004, Lina Sparrow is a corporate lawyer, the daughter of Oscar, a famous artist. Lina's mother died when she was a child, and she has very few memories of her mother. Lina is chosen by one of the partners at her law firm to work on finding a plaintiff for a big case- a slave reparations lawsuit that a big client wishes to bring against corporations that made lots of money off the labor of slaves.
Lina attends a show of LuAnn Bell's paintings, and hears about a controversy surrounding the show. Some people believe that Josephine is the actual artist, and the controversy has made headlines. Lina believes that descendants of Josephine would make the perfect plaintiffs for her case, so she travels to Virginia in search of them.
The story alternates between Josephine and Lina's point of view, but the most interesting parts of the novel for me were the letters written by Dorothea Rounds (an abolitionist who helped her undertaker father as a stop on the Underground Railroad) to her sister Kate, and a twenty page letter written by Caleb Harper, a disgraced medical student and brother-in-law to Dorothea.
Dorothea's letters to her sister explain in great detail how she and her father cleverly hid slaves in coffins destined for shipment up North. As someone who grew up in Auburn NY, the last home of Harriet Tubman and a stop on the Underground Railroad, I found this so fascinating. How their scheme ends is a sad tale and the author tells it in such a compelling manner I found myself on the edge of my seat as I read it.
Caleb's story is a sad one too. He has a alcohol problem and after he is blamed for a family tragedy, he completely falls apart. He ends up working for a slave catcher, medically treating the slaves so that they can be resold further South. When Caleb meets up with Josephine, he sees a chance at redemption.
I raced through Caleb's 20-page letter because his story was so interesting, and he is such a well-written character. Many other reviews have mentioned that Josephine's story is more compelling than Lina's, and I think it is partly because of these two primary sources that Lina uncovers. They are quite well done.
The House Girl is one of those books that slowly pulls you in, and once you are in, you can hardly come up for air. Josephine's story and her yearning for basic human dignity and what she is willing to endure to find that are inspirational and heartbreaking. If you are a fan of historical fiction, I highly recommend this irresistible debut novel and I look forward to more to come from Tara Conklin.
rating 4 of 5