Saturday, September 29, 2012

The House Girl - 2013 Good Read Alert!

I was fortunate to receive a digital advance copy of this novel and blew through it last weekend while flying back and forth to Pittsburgh. I admit to having trouble with the title and wondered if this would be another condescending look at institutional slavery and its aftermath in the United States where the writer uses humor, as in The Help, to make light of a horrific time in our country's history.

What a pleasant surprise I had while reading this first novel by Seattle writer Tara Conklin. (born and raised only 6 miles from my hometown in Massachusetts) I loved her voice from the jump and enjoyed it even more when I found her blog, in particular this post where she discusses the novel's cover and the angst that goes into the decision - something most readers actually think the author has control over - NOT!

It seems that I've been inundated lately with novels that use parallel story lines, generally in different centuries, that culminate by solving riddles of identity and heredity. It's a very pleasing and effective literary device. Conklin's book begins on a Virginia tobacco plantation in the 1850's where the enslaved "house girl," Josephine, has an ambiguous relationship with her mistress and enslaver, Lu Ann Bell.

Josephine is an endearing heroine, strong, smart, and tenacious. Though she endures the rapes and beatings that befell so many women and children in the south at that time, her spirit and passion for freedom soar through the canvases she paints under Lu Ann's protection.

In current time Manhattan another strong willed woman, attorney Lina Sparrow, has been tasked with a make or break case, one that should have happened long ago, one that will create controversy, publicity and $$$$ for her prestigious law firm, a suit for reparations for slavery.

I love that Conklin had the courage to bring this contentious subject matter forward in her first  book. When one considers the economic impact of slave labor in the building of this country, not to mention the construction of our own White House, it would seem like a no-brainer that some form of compensation should be awarded to ancestors of enslaved people.

Calling upon her background as an attorney, Conklin draws a picture of bloodless lawyers, working their newbies 100 hour weeks while dangling the carrot of a partnership before their bloodshot eyes. Lina and her co-workers have no life outside the firm which perhaps explains how she has managed to subsume the longing for her mother, an artist named Grace, killed years past in an automobile accident.

She shares her childhood home with her dad, renowned painter Oscar Sparrow, and it is her connection with the art world that becomes the catalyst that bridges Lina's work on the reparations case with Josephine's life and legacy back in Virginia.

This novel deserves wide readership and I hope that it gets it when published in early 2013. Conklin combines the history of the underground railroad, genealogy research ( with a very cool librarian ), the underlying truth in artistic expression, and a passion for justice, to give her audience a deeply satisfying reading experience and time spent with characters who refuse to be victims. Multiple themes for discussion abound so book groups should keep this one on their radar screen!


Lisa May said...

This sounds very intruging - I was all set to head for the library website until I saw you read an advance copy. I'll have to add it to my "upcoming books" list instead.

Andrea said...

If only I can remember the title that long...

Sallyb said...

I hear ya Andrea. Not only do we need spreadsheets for what we've already read, we need them for our "to read" lists!

TooManyBooks said...

I'll have to add it to my list!

Pam Parker said...

Thanks, sounds very intriguing.