Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

Tara Conklin intertwines the story of two women: Josephine Bell, a Virginia house slave who in 1853 is trying desperately to escape to freedom and Lina Sparrow, a New York attorney looking for a plaintiff to serve as "lead plaintiff" in a class action suit in 2004  to compel the payment of reparations for descendants of slaves. The story is hung together by the discovery of some artwork that is thought to have been painted by Josephine Bell although heretofore attributed to her white owner.

The slave story is by far the more compelling.  We read of harsh treatment, unsuccessful escapes, and finally her "trip" on the Underground Railroad.  The characters are well-drawn, believable, and the story hangs together beautifully.  The reader is emotionally drawn into the life of Josephine, given insight into the extreme conditions slaves endured both in captivity in the south, and throughout the ordeal of the escapees.

Lina's story on the other hand is a bit sparse.  I found it difficult to relate to this young woman who seems to have no backbone in her job, whose researching skills are lacking and who seems to be on the receiving end of several fortuitous happenings.  I couldn't quite figure out if the plaintiff she was pursuing was also meant to be a romantic interest, and I found the whole reparations story a wee stretch, as did the plaintiff.  The story of Josephine and her paintings carried the book.  The platform of the reparations case was quite unsteady, and the ending really left me hanging.

Overall, the book is still worth reading if for no other reason than for the clear picture of slave life and the hopelessness of their situation.  Reparations may be called for.  I just wish the author had made a better case for them, and found a more convincing plaintiff and built a more persuasive case.

Title: The House Girl
Author: Tara Conklin
Publisher: William Morrow (2013), Hardcover, 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Subject: Slavery, Underground Railroad
Setting: Virginia 1853, New York 2004
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? It was on the long list for the Maine Reader's Choice Award


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