LitStack Review: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

The House GirlThe House Girl
Tara Conklin
HarperCollins Publishers
First Edition: February 12, 2013
ISBN 978-0-06-220739-5

Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run.  She heard the whistle of the blow, felt the sting of skin against skin, her head spun and she was looking back over her right shoulder, down to the fields where the few men Mister had left were working the tobacco.  The leaves hung heavy and low on the stalk, ready for picking.  She saw a man’s bare back and the new hired man, Nathan, staring up at the house, leaning on a rake.  The air tasted sweet, the honeysuckle crawling up the porch railings thick now with flower, and the sweetness mixed with the blood in her mouth.

So begins Tara Conklin‘s recent novel about two women; one, a slave in Virginia in the mid-1800s, the other, a young, modern lawyer in New York City.  Different histories, different backgrounds, very different experiences, and yet their stories intertwine regardless of those differences.

Josephine is 17 years old, having come to Bell Creek with her mother when she was very small.  But her mother dies shortly after they arrive, leaving the girl to be raised by old Lottie and the other slaves that work in the fields and the gardens and with the livestock.  At age seven Josephine is taken from the other children and assigned the role of house girl, in order to assist “Missus Lu” after her most recent miscarriage.

Bell Creek had once been a prosperous farm, but by the time we meet Josephine it has fallen on hard times.  Crops failed, Mister drank, and Missus was dying after 17 pregnancies with no surviving children.  Buildings had fallen into disrepair, weeds took over what had been carefully tended flower beds, and hope for a better future waned.  Many of the grownups Josephine knew, the children she played with, and even a young man she fancied, either died or were sold to pay for seed, for necessities.  Some of the slaves ran but were caught and returned; some would have their heels slashed so they would not be able to run again.  Josephine herself had run once before, when she was 13 and pregnant with Mister’s child, but she had returned when she realized she had nowhere to go; that night was full of shame and despair, and the pain of never being able to hold her child or even know if it had been a boy or a girl.

It was true that Missus Lu had taught Josephine her letters – mainly so she could read Bible verses to her mistress – but Josephine’s greatest joy came when she was able to “assist” Missus with drawing and painting.  Lu Anne Bell fancied herself an artist, but it was Josephine who had the innate talent; it was the untutored black slave and not the privileged white owner who could capture not only the shape but the soul of the world around her.

Sometimes Josephine would sketch a form where Missus found herself unsure, the charcoal in Josephine’s hand moving quickly, the apple or hillside or vase finished with confidence, and Missus would step to the picture again.  As Missus labored at the canvas, Josephine would resume her fanning, her reading, but inside a restlessness would take hold, and a flush of herself, the joy in what her hands could do.

Alternately, Carolina (Lina to all save her father) is a first year associate at a prestigious law firm and is anxious to prove herself.  She lives with her artist father, Oscar, in the same brownstone where she grew up; her mother, also a talented artist, died when Lina was young, leaving her daughter only a few drawings and some fading memories.  Until recently, Oscar had refused to talk about Lina’s mother or the car accident that took her life, but now he has built an entire collection of paintings based solely on coming to terms with the memory of his wife and wants to share those paintings with Lina before they go public.  But although she still has plenty of questions, Lina is not sure she’s ready to tear the scab off those scars quite yet.

Besides, she’s plenty of busy with her work.  Due to her drive and initiative – and her ability to write up a brilliant brief on the tightest of deadlines – Lina is tapped to assist Dan, a senior partner, with a new case involving reparation work.  The scope is historic; seeking awards from private companies that benefited from slave labor and giving restitution to the descendants of those slaves.  It’s Lina’s job to find a plaintiff who will become the face of the claim.

Through her father, she learns that questions have been raised about the authenticity of some of the works attributed to Lu Ann Bell, a Civil War era artist whose paintings have become quite sought after by collectors; some experts are uncomfortable with inconsistencies found in the works that have come to exemplify the antebellum South.  Additionally, a few unsigned works have been uncovered that clearly mirror the strongest of the established Bell works, but are rumored to have been created not by Lu Ann, but by a slave in the Bell household instead.  Could it be that Josephine was a real artist behind the Bell collection?

Lina sets out to not only prove that Josephine was the uncredited genius behind the paintings, but also to search for a descendant willing to serve as plaintiff in the reparations case.  Both these goals prove daunting, not just because of the lack of personal records regarding slaves, but also because the Lu Ann Bell collection is managed by the powerful Stanmore Foundation, who has a vested interest in ensuring the former Confederate belle is the uncontested artist of the entire collection.

With articulate and compelling portraits of both the pre-Civil War south and the modern law office, author Tara Conklin has certainly done her research.  The forced smallness of Josephine’s life, her lack of opportunity, the callousness of how she and her fellow slaves were treated, and the very real dangers of those involved with slaves’ rights are contrasted with the determination shown by a young girl who refuses to accept what life has dealt her.  Alternately, Lina comes alive as a young woman with so much opportunity that she gets caught up in the struggle to have it all, yet missing out on life.  Both of these story lines are fluid and ring true.

Unfortunately, The House Girl stumbles in the way in which these stories unfold.  While the two main characters are strong, lesser characters come off as stiff and stereotyped; it feels that they were inserted in the story simply to fulfill a purpose rather than as people who would actually populate Josephine or Lina’s lives.  And there are some careless inconsistencies (such as Lina being admonished by Dan to not tell anyone about the case, and the first thing she does is go home and tell her father about it).

Additionally, the letters and journals used to support Lina’s research are too open, too compromising, and just too convenient to be credible.  If it is so dangerous to run an outpost on the Underground Railroad, then why does the daughter of one of the “conductors” detail actions taken surrounding their operation in multiple letters to her married sister?  How easy it would have been for those letters to have been intercepted!  And the circumstances, outcome, and literary eloquence of the smoking gun journal are far too fantastic – and again, far too convenient – to support the believability that had been so carefully established in the development of Josephine’s character.

This isn’t to suggest that The House Girl is not a worthwhile and enlightening read – it is.  But be aware that, as the novel progresses, a healthy suspension of disbelief will be needed in order to maintain the high expectations that are established early on.

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