|The House Girl
3.5 / 5
"Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run."
Virginia, 1852. Seventeen-year-old Josephine Bell decides to run from the failing tobacco farm where she is a slave and nurse to her ailing mistress, the aspiring artist Lu Anne Bell. New York City, 2004. Lina Sparrow, an ambitious first-year associate in an elite law firm, is given a difficult, highly sensitive assignment that could make her career: she must find the “perfect plaintiff” to lead a historic class-action lawsuit worth trillions of dollars in reparations for descendants of American slaves.
It is through her father, the renowned artist Oscar Sparrow, that Lina discovers Josephine Bell and a controversy roiling the art world: are the iconic paintings long ascribed to Lu Anne Bell really the work of her house slave, Josephine? A descendant of Josephine’s would be the perfect face for the reparations lawsuit—if Lina can find one. While following the runaway girl’s faint trail through old letters and plantation records, Lina finds herself questioning her own family history and the secrets that her father has never revealed: How did Lina’s mother die? And why will he never speak about her?
Moving between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, this searing, suspenseful and heartbreaking tale of art and history, love and secrets, explores what it means to repair a wrong and asks whether truth is sometimes more important than justice.
This book felt like it took me an age to get through, although that might have been because it was requested by another patron at the library before I had even had a chance to start it, and therefore the entire reading of it felt a bit as if I were under pressure. However, this was also because the beginning was SLOW, and the story took quite a while to pick up. I am glad I stuck with it, though, because it was such an interesting concept. I enjoyed the way the story was told by several different people, from several different viewpoints. It echoed the complexities that enmesh real life.
The story centers mostly around Josephine, a young slave in rural Virginia who is the eponymous house girl; she serves her mistress and master personally, fixing their meals and tending to their illnesses, which means she also holds a relatively special place which includes higher standards of living than the other slaves. This includes learning to read, write, and - most importantly - paint, which turns out to be one of her few escapes from servitude. However, she also suffers more than her fellow slaves in many ways, living so closely alongside her captors.Thus, she yearns for freedom, and plans to run.
Over 150 years later, a young lawyer named Lina is asked to look into a reparations case for the many trillions of dollars denied African Americans because of their enforced lives in the antebellum South. Lina becomes more engrossed in the case than she expects, and realizes she cares more about this one than many which have come before. At the same time, she is questioning other parts of her life, as well - especially that of her relationship with her father, the only parent she has ever really known, and the loss of her mother at a young age. Many influences converge upon Lina during this time in her life, which makes her story very engaging. I felt as if Lina's search for the truth, and what she ultimately learns about Josephine Bell - the many mistakes both the slave and others around her made in their lives - is what helps her come to terms with her own issues. I liked that everything came full circle at the end; understanding the flaws that others admitted to is what allowed Lina to forgive the flaws in those around her - and in herself.
One passage which many have complained about is the list of slave names which the author chooses to spend an entire page (and a bit more) listing. While I understand how strange and annoying that can be in a novel, my hope (although as yet unconfirmed) is that Conklin actually listed the names of real slaves who had been unjustly considered property before the Civil War. The legal case which the book centers around is all about making those names known; it is pointed out that we know many of the names of the famous white slaveowners to this day, but very few (if any) of the names of their slaves, who were the true workers behind those successful men. Wasn't Conklin simply making a step towards rectifying that imbalance in her own small way? Of course, she couldn't have sold a book which listed hundreds of pages of names. Almost nobody would read a novel like that. But I made sure to spend the time to read every name printed on that page. I thought that was the point of it. I truly hope so.
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