Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The House Girl (P.S.) by Tara Conklin

Title: The House Girl: A Novel (P.S.)
Classification: Adult Fiction
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Series: P.S.
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (November 5, 2013)
ISBN-10: 0062207512
ISBN-13: 978-0062207517
Author's Website: http://www.taraconklin.com/
Notes: I borrowed this one from the library.

“My friends, this will be the largest, most important case of your careers,” he said. “I don’t care if you’ve been a lawyer for twenty years, or if yesterday was your first day at this venerable institution. This is the one you’ve been waiting for. We seek to right this nation’s largest, most enduring sin. We seek redress for hundreds of years of man’s inhumanity to man, trillions—let me say it again, trillions—of dollars in unpaid wages. The plaintiffs number, at the very least, in the hundreds of thousands, and possibly in the millions. We seek not only to compensate them for their ancestors’ sweat and blood but to memorialize, to remember.” 

A young lawyer is charged with finding a plaintiff to represent the face of slavery. An individual who has mass appeal and can win the sympathy of a jury. The person she picks is a young black slave woman who lived in the mid 1800s named Josephine. Josephine could bring controversy and publicity to the lawsuit.

'Much has been written about the early death and turbulent life of the southern painter Lu Anne Bell. An artist with no formal training, she rendered masterpieces of everyday life on the failing tobacco farm where she lived and died. Her work provokes questions of class, race, poverty, and the pernicious effects and moral bankruptcy of the “peculiar institution,” slavery in the antebellum South. She has been embraced by modern feminists and civil rights activists as a woman who, due to the constraints of the society in which she lived, expressed her beliefs in the only way she could: through her art. Or did she? Art historians now question the true authenticity of the Bell oeuvre. Famously, Lu Anne Bell signed none of her art. New evidence strongly suggests that the author of the masterful Bell works was not Lu Anne Bell but in fact her house girl, the adolescent slave Josephine.'

Now all Lina needs to do is track down a surviving relative and prove once and for all that Josephine is the artist behind the historical masterpieces. No sweat.
I really wasn't sure what to expect when I started reading this book, but I was pleasantly surprised. A large portion of the book was very compelling and suspenseful. Josephine's story and how Lina went about tracking it down was well written and thought out and kept my full attention. I couldn't wait to find out what next would be discovered. The toggling between the two main character, one in the present and one in the past, was brilliantly done and added to the suspense of it all. This part of the story was unquestionably for me a 5 star read.

While I loved Josephine's story, another smaller story within the larger one didn't seem to fit in with the rest. I understand what the author was trying to do--build another bridge between the past and present and explain why Lina was so obsessed with finding out what happened to Josephine, but I felt it just didn't work.  While I applaud her effort, ***slight spoiler*** I felt that comparing a slave to someone who didn't want to be a mother and felt trapped in her marriage was a poor choice--the two are vastly different. To me (and I'm sure the author didn't attend to do this) it belittles the tragedy of what happened to Josephine. In my humble opinion, a bridge like this needs to be of equal height/severity in order for things not to go askew and detract from the more intense and bigger story. I felt, at least in this case, you need equal footing between the two and that just wasn't the case. Josephine had no control over what happened to her. Things were done to her. The other woman chose to get married and through her own actions found herself pregnant. She had choices which Josephine did not.***end of spoiler***

Overall, I gave this one 4 out of 5 roses. I liked the suspense the author created with Josephine's story by going back and forth between the past and present. Plus, I loved learning about Josephine and the young woman won me over. While I would have loved a happier ending, I felt the author did a good job of capturing the cruelty and despair of what was happening back in the days of slavery. At times it reminded me of the book Roots by Alex Haley, although it is not quite as severe in its intensity as that book. The story makes you wonder how anyone could not see that a black person is just that--a person. Plus, it makes you see the "good old days" weren't as "good" as one would believe. Not when people were killed and tortured just for the color of their skin. It's unfathomable.

Notes to keep you in the know:
"In 2014, the Whitney Plantation opened its doors to the public for the first time in its 262 year history as the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery. Through museum exhibits, memorial artwork and restored buildings and hundreds of first-person slave narratives, visitors to Whitney will gain a unique perspective on the lives of Louisiana's enslaved people." For more information, check out their website at http://www.whitneyplantation.com/

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