Written by: Tara Conklin
Published by: William Morrow February 12, 2013
Length: 336 pages
Source: E Galley from publisher via Edelweiss
The House Girl is written in two time periods, 1852 where Josephine Bell is the house slave to her mistress, she does the cooking and the cleaning, but mostly she is the constant companion to Lu Ann Bell. Lu Ann has miscarried and lost so many babies they have lost count, she is mentally unstable and her health is failing. She considers herself an artist, and she allows Josephine the time and canvas to be with her and also paint. Josephine has also been permitted to learn how to read and write. The more recent time of 2004 is where we meet Lina Sparrow, first year lawyer and daughter to an artist. As her firm is considering a reparations case she is also made aware of an art controversy occurring that may very well link a her case. The extensive art of Lu Ann Bell is being challenged, now believed to be that of her slave, Josephine. If Lina can find a descendant of Josephine Bell she may be able to add a very visible face to her case.
The House Girl has two stories and quite honestly I did like one more than the other. Josephine’s story was very real and sad. Conklin told the story of her time as a slave with details and a sense of a woman coming of age. Josephine knows her current lot and she knows that the consequence of running away is likely death or being maimed, but she also knows she must be free. The connections of the Underground Railroad, those people who were sympathetic to the inhumanity of slavery and also the vicious ways of those who captured runaway slaves were expertly detailed. One can’t help but be a cheerleader for Josephine, wanting her to have her dream, seeing in her a much more evolved person than that of many slave depictions in other works of fiction.
Lina’s story was necessary to tell this story, but many details seemed far fetched. The law firm and those details of 6 minute billing were a bit boring. Reparations cases are not common and in the case given didn’t seem likely. I did enjoy the story of she and her father, and how their relationship was strained when the subject of her mother came up. Her ties to the art world brought the two story lines together and her tenacity in researching the homes and people in Virginia gave way to truth she was able to unearth.
I was taken away by this book, historical fiction has become a new love of mine and this book did not disappoint. I am amazed that this is Tara’s first novel. I’ve given it 4 out of 5 stars and I strongly recommend it. It would make for a rousing book club discussion too. Tara Conklin has done an outstanding job of capturing the character of Josephine, her journey was not all a happy story book ending but it certainly made me happy I’d been on that trip with her. You can learn more about Tara Conklin on her website. She is on Twitter @TEConklin.