House Girl (Conklin)

The House Girl
Tara Conklin, 2013
HarperCollins
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780062207395



Summary
The House Girl, the historical fiction debut by Tara Conklin, is an unforgettable story of love, history, and a search for justice, set in modern-day New York and 1852 Virginia.

Weaving together the story of an escaped slave in the pre–Civil War South and a determined junior lawyer, The House Girl follows Lina Sparrow as she looks for an appropriate lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking compensation for families of slaves. In her research, she learns about Lu Anne Bell, a renowned prewar artist whose famous works might have actually been painted by her slave, Josephine.

Featuring two remarkable, unforgettable heroines, Tara Conklin's The House Girl is riveting and powerful, literary fiction at its very best. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—N/A
Where—St. Croix, US Virgin Islands
Raised—Stockbridge, Massachusetts, USA
Education—B.A., Yale University; M.A.L.D., Fletcher
   School Law and Diplomacy at Tufts; J.D., New York
   University School of Law
Currently—lives in Seattle, Oregon

Tara Conklin was born on St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands and raised in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. She is a graduate of Yale University and received her Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, as well as a law degree from New York University School of Law. A joint US-UK citizen, Tara now lives with her family in Seattle. The House Girl is her first novel. (Adapted from the publisher.)



Book Reviews
Lawyer-turned-writer Conklin debuts with a braided novel of two intersecting tales separated by 150 years. In 2004, Lina Sparrow is a first-year associate at a prestigious New York law firm; in 1852, Josephine Bell is the titular "house girl," a slave on a Virginia farm. Assigned to work on a class-action suit involving slavery reparations, Lina searches out a suitable plaintiff for the case, hoping to find a descendant of slaves with an especially compelling story. Lina's father, an artist, suggests that Lina research the story of Josephine, speculated to be the real artist behind paintings attributed to Lu Anne Bell, her white master, and Lina embarks on a search that finds her retracing the footsteps of a runaway slave. The tragedy of Josephine leads Lina deeper into not only Josephine's history but her own, which helps her to make sense of her mother, a woman Lina never knew. Alternating between Lina and Josephine, this novel is unfortunately trite, predictable, and insensitive at its core: the lives of a 19th-century black slave and a 21st-century white lawyer are not simply comparable but mutually revealing, fodder for healing. Striving for affecting revelations, Conklin manages nothing more than unsatisfying platitudes and smugly pat realizations.
Publishers Weekly


First-year law firm associate Lina Sparrow must find someone to serve as the face of a historic class-action lawsuit worth a fortune in reparations for descendants of American slaves. Since it's now suspected that antebellum artist Lu Anne Bell's empathetic depictions of slaves were the work of her house slave, Josephine, Lina is determined to track down one of Josephine's descendants.
Library Journal


Luminous.... The rare novel that seamlessly toggles between centuries and characters and remains consistently gripping throughout.... Powerful.
BookPage


Conklin persuasively intertwines the stories of two women separated by time and circumstances but united by a quest for justice...Stretching back and forth across time and geography, this riveting tale is bolstered by some powerful universal truths.
Booklist


[O]verlapping contemporary and historical fictions—in this case, the lives of a young lawyer defining herself in 21st-century New York and a young slave with secret talents in 19th-century Virginia. In 1852, on a failing Virginia farm, 17-year-old Josephine cares for her dying mistress Lu Anne,... [who] taught the girl to read and to paint.... Cut to 2004. Lu Anne's art is highly prized as the work of a protofeminist artist sensitive to the plight of slaves. But...[s]ome art critics wonder if paintings attributed to Lu Anne were really completed by Josephine.... As the focus shifts back and forth between the centuries, Josephine evolves into a wonderfully fresh character whose survival instinct competes with her capacity for love as she tries to reach freedom. But...lawyer, Lina, comes across more as a sketch than a portrait, and the choices she makes are boringly predictable. Provocative issues of race and gender intertwine in earnest if uneven issues-oriented fiction.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. As a servant in the Bell's home Josephine is literally "The House Girl." But how does this title also apply to Lina's character? What is the significance of Lina leaving her father's house at the close of the story?

2. The definition of "family" is unclear in this story: Lina's mother is absent for all of her life, Josephine's son is fathered by her married master. As Lina reflects on her mother's artwork she wonders whether you can create family connections: "What is blood and what is decision?" What is your response?

3. Separated by more than two centuries, Lina and Josephine's characters never meet, but Conklin's narrator tells this story through each of their perspectives. What similarities do you find between these two women? What would each character be able to teach the other?

4. On an empty page in her favorite book, Grace Sparrow writes "who is free?" We know that Josephine, Lottie and the others at the Bell plantation are literally enslaved. But who else experiences a lack of freedom in this story? Do you think these characters achieve freedom by the close of the novel?

5. Lu Anne Bell's relationship to Josephine is intense. She allows this slave, who gave birth to a boy fathered by her own husband, to remain in their home. She shares the most intimate moments of vulnerability with her when her illness is at its worst. But how does Josephine feel towards Lu Anne? How does she perceive her role in Lu Anne's life?

6. Taking us back and forth between Josephine and Lina's worlds, the narrator gives us an intimate look into the lives of both women. But Conklin also introduces Caleb Harper and Dorothea Rounds as additional narrators, speaking through their letters. What did their narrations add to the story? How did they change your understanding of Josephine and others living and working in the Bell's community?

7. Josephine "keeps" her memories in Mr. Jefferson's chest of drawers. How is this similar to Oscar's paintings of Grace? How do these characters confront the loss and pain they've experienced? How do they hide things away?

8. In the final pages of the novel, Lina decides to call her mother, asking Jasper to dial the phone number. What do you think Lina will say? Is she ready to build a relationship? Has she forgiven her mother for leaving?

9. Many people ask Lina why she has chosen to become a lawyer. Does she ever give a satisfying answer? Lina's law professor had taught her that the "law is the bastion of reason…there is no place for feeling." Why does a career like this appeal to Lina, the artist's daughter? How does this appeal wane throughout the story?

10. Many of the characters are trying to atone for acts committed in the past—Caleb, for his work with the slave catcher, Dorothea for her brother Percy's death, Oscar for not being a "good husband" to Grace. Do you think they are successful?

11. What is the role of religion in Josephine's world? How does religious belief both help and hinder Lottie?

12. Lina and Dorothea are both women seeking to excel in areas dominated by men—Lina, at a corporate law firm; Dorothea, in the abolitionist movement, what her father calls "not work for women." How do their experiences differ? How are they the same?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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