Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The House Girl

Posted by nliakos on January 18, 2014

by Tara Conklin (Harper Collins 2013)

This is a novel set in two times (1848 and 2004) and places (Charlotte County, Virginia and New York City). The two protagonists are Josephine Bell, the eponymous house girl (I’ve always wanted to use that word!) to a childless Virginia farmer and his wife, and Lina Sparrow, an attorney assigned to find a plaintiff in a slavery reparations case. Their stories merge as Lina learns that the well-known paintings of plantation life supposedly done by Lu Anne Bell may actually be the work of her slave, Josephine. As she investigates further, she finds a likely descendant of Josephine Bell–only he is not interested in becoming a plaintiff in the case. He may be interested in getting to know her better, however.

So there is a lot going on in this novel. The chapters alternate between 1848 and 2004, with almost all the 1848 chapters taking place on one day–the day that Lu Anne receives a prognosis of death from the doctor and Josephine plans to run away. Lina’s story is more spread out and complicated, dealing with her relationship with the artist father with whom she lives, the death of her mother when she was a baby, her interactions at work and her ambivalence about her job.

Other characters, whom we meet only through their letters, include Dorothea, who helps runaway slaves to escape north on the Underground Railroad and Caleb Harper, her brother-in-law, who tries to help Josephine to escape.

There are an awful lot of coincidences which would probably never have happened if it were real life (like meeting Josephine’s descendant at a show of Lu Anne Bell’s paintings and the aforementioned relationship between Dorothea and the doctor), but the story pulled me along and made me care about the characters, as all good novels should.

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