Thursday, February 14, 2013

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

“Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run. . . The blow came without warning, no reason that Josephine could say.”

Josephine had tried to run once when she was twelve or thirteen.  As the novel opens, she’s a seventeen-year-old house slave who tends to her mistress, an artist named Lu Anne Bell, on a Virginia plantation in 1852. Josephine’s attempted escape and the tales of the people who aided or thwarted her gird this section of the novel.

In the alternate story set in 2004, Lina, a first year associate in a New York law firm, must find a face for her historic case seeking reparations for the descendants of American slaves  Lina and her artist father have lived in their Brooklyn house her entire life; it’s her rock in an uncertain world.  Lina’s father soon helps her discover that the famous, surviving paintings by Lu Anne Bell, portraits of slaves on her plantation, may actually have been the work of Josephine, the slave. 

Lina is certain that one of Josephine’s descendants would be perfect for the lawsuit so she sets off to find one.  In her quest she learns about Josephine’s life in 1852 and discovers parallels with her own complicated story including that of her mother’s mysterious death when she was very young.  

Josephine’s story is evocative of the period and Conklin’s writing soars in her descriptions of plantation life.  Her reliance on actual slave diaries is evident and she makes the characters seem real and important.   She’s less successful with Lina’s life which seems almost an afterthought and that surprised me since Conklin herself was once an attorney much like Lina.

The reviews of this novel are almost as divided as the issue of slavery was in 1852.  Kirkus loves it and Kirkus is unrelentingly tough so when it gives a book a starred review, it means it. IndieNext made it the top pick for February.  But Publishers Weekly wrote one of the most scathing condemnations I’ve read in that publication -- calling it “trite, predictable, and insensitive at its core.”  This reader believes there’s truth in all their observations and reasons galore for many to love this book and for others to find it wanting.

It seems to be a case of split personality, a tale of two eras, two house girls.  Lina can leave her house but doesn't.  Josephine wants to leave but can’t.   Who’s free?  Who’s enslaved?   

I really cared about Josephine and her quest but I didn't feel there was enough information or character development in Lina’s story. I wish the author had simply written Josephine’s story and allowed her powerful words to illuminate the horrors of slavery.

Summing it Up:  Read the excerpt.  Decide for yourself.  Enjoy learning about the life of Josephine, the artist and slave, in 1852 but don’t expect as much from Lina’s world today.

Rating: 3 stars   

Category: Historical Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date:  February 12, 2013

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