'The House Girl': Tara Conklin's 'sorrowful and engrossing novel' about slavery packs a wallop

It can handle the truth


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Tara Conklin's "The House Girl" interweaves the stories of two young women who, though separated by several generations and many layers of privilege, are both burdened with unanswered questions about their family histories.

Lina Sparrow is a first-year associate at a prestigious New York City law firm. When her boss assigns her a class-action lawsuit for reparations on behalf of the descendants of American slaves, she initially takes a just-the-facts-no-feelings approach, like the well-trained lawyer she is. But Lina becomes more deeply invested when her artist father tells her about a controversy brewing in the art world involving Josephine Bell, who had once been a young house slave owned by Lu Anne Bell, a celebrated white antebellum artist.


"THE HOUSE GIRL"

By Tara Conklin
HarperCollins($25.99).


Rewind 150 years, and we meet 17-year-old Josephine on the day of her decision to run away. Told from her perspective and through archival documents Lina obtains as evidence, Josephine's story is a familiar slave narrative, but it is no less heartbreaking, owing to Ms. Conklin's rich prose.

There is routine rape; destruction of family bonds through the sale of loved ones, their subsequent fate and location unknown, and the complicated embrace of the slavemaster's God as the only constant in life. Josephine's last day and night in bondage are crafted through scenes that juxtapose the cruel and brutal nature of slavery against the finely detailed physical landscape of a Virginia tobacco farm, as seen through Josephine's eyes. We see hills gently curved like a woman's body, the tattered flesh on a dying boy's back, a handful of bluebells in a bottle inside a slave's cabin.

Josephine's eye for detail, for the lines and curves of the world around her, and her compassion for fellow slaves are evident in her paintings and drawings. A century later, Josephine's art is lauded by civil rights activists and feminists -- as the work of Lu Anne Bell.

But when 21st-century art historians begin to suspect that Lu Anne's work is really Josephine's, the timing is perfect for Lina's case. One of Josephine's descendents would make a compelling lead plaintiff for the reparations case if one can be found.

Even though the class-action suit itself is being orchestrated by powerful interests with less than altruistic intentions, one pivotal character passionately presents the cornerstone on which the reparations issue rests:

"We would not be the world's superpower today if we had not had 250 years of free, limitless labor on which to build our economy. ... What were their names? They were our founding fathers and mothers just as much as the bewigged white men who laid the whip against their backs. Isn't it time this country made the effort to remember them?"

In some ways, "The House Girl" is an answer to this question -- an homage to former slaves. Ms. Conklin devotes a page and a half to actual names of some of the last surviving slaves interviewed through the Depression-era Federal Writers' Project which Lina studies while researching the case.

Ms. Conklin invites the reader to pay homage as well; reading the former slaves' names, one-by-one, is a meditation of sorts.

Abolitionists are also recognized, depicted here as three-dimensional characters with more diverse and complex motives than are usually ascribed to them. One abolitionist is motivated not by religious mandate, but because she has lost her faith.

Fortunately, Ms. Conklin avoids the clunky editorializing that might come easily to a book about reparations. Instead, she delivers a sorrowful, engrossing novel in which the pursuit of justice serves as a catalyst to a more personal pursuit for truth.

Josephine has the first and last words of the novel. But in between, as Lina works to uncover Josephine's past, she's also confronted with the reality of her own, particularly about her mother's life and mysterious death 20 years before. Through Josephine and Lina's journeys, "The House Girl" is also a meditation on motherhood, feminism, loss, and, ultimately, redemption.

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Deesha Philyaw (DeeshaPhilyaw@gmail.com) is a Pittsburgh-based writer and co-founder of CoParenting101.org.


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