The House Girl by Tara Conklin (William Morrow; 384 pages; $25.99).
Tara Conklin knows how to open a story. “Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run,” Conklin writes in her passionate and politically charged debut The House Girl. Reading the novel’s opening line, I feel the sting of the blow just as Josephine does. “Today was the last day, there would be no others,” Josephine vows. The urge hits me to help her escape, but I cannot aid her in flight; I am just a reader, after all. And, just like that, Conklin has her audience transfixed. Josephine’s well-being is of utmost concern.
When was the last time you read a story like that? A story that made you actually care about what happened to one of its characters to such an extent that you bit your fingernails to the quick and let the world pass you by until you knew the fate of the protagonist? Conklin’s novel is that tale, a book that will keep readers up all night just to learn what becomes of Josephine, who is, for me, the heart of The House Girl.
The House Girl is a remarkable story that successfully intertwines the lives of two very different women, separated by circumstances and by the passage of time.
In 2004, Lina Sparrow is a young, driven, first-year associate at a prestigious New York City law firm. She is given a high-profile assignment to find the perfect plaintiff in an unprecedented historic lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendants of African American slaves. Trillions of dollars are at stake, not to mention Lina’s reputation, as she sets out to find a picture-perfect candidate for the class-action suit.
In 1852, Josephine is a house slave in Virginia. At the tender age of seventeen, she serves the Bell family, owners of a tobacco plantation. Josephine has already escaped once before and paid a very high price for running away. Despite physical punishment and the emotional toll that enslavement has inflicted upon her body and her psyche, Josephine is determined to escape to the North. She seeks only to be her own mistress.
These two disparate storylines intersect when Lina discusses the case with her father, Oscar, a famous artist, who gives her a lead. The art world, Oscar says, is abuzz over a controversy surrounding the paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist who is well-known for works that featured her slaves. Art historians and collectors, however, question the authenticity of the artworks; they do not believe Bell painted a number of the canvases. Many believe her house slave, Josephine, was the actual artist.
You can see the wheels turning inside Lina’s head when she hears the story. Josephine’s descendant, Lina believes, will be the perfect plaintiff. The question is: what happened to Josephine? Did she escape? Did she have any children?
Lina sets out on a quest and travels to what remains of the Bell property in Virginia, now home to an archive. There, she painstakingly combs through letters, plantation records, receipts, and diaries in hopes of discovering Josephine’s fate.
Curiously, Lina’s dogged pursuit changes her own life. Josephine’s journey acts as the catalyst Lina needs to question her own identity and her history. Because Conklin writes the story with such immediacy, we feel as if we have tagged along with Lina on her exploration. The fates of both “house” girls matter deeply to us.
The House Girl carries enormous appeal as a crossover novel. Conklin combines mystery, historical fiction, and art history with a little romance. The real strength of The House Girl lies in Conklin’s remarkable ability to make the past come alive accurately and acutely. Josephine’s world is beautifully and painfully rendered, and the horrifying tragedies her character endures are entirely plausible. Conklin provides a stunning glimpse into Josephine’s life, and readers will never forget this young, courageous slave girl.
Conklin leaves us with a provocative and potentially controversial topic: slavery reparations. Who should be compensated? Who is a rightful descendant and who is not?
Marie Claire Magazine calls The House Girl “THE book-club book of 2013,” and I wholeheartedly agree. Conklin has created two extraordinary, unforgettable women in Josephine and Lina. It is Josephine, however, who will steal your heart and not let go. You will want to spirit her away, but you are powerless until the very last page. Conklin’s historical debut is a poignant masterpiece.