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The House Girl, by Tara Conklin.

December 16, 2012

House GirlThe House Girl, by Tara Conklin. William Morrow (2013), Hardcover, 384 pages.

An ambitious novel about a slave woman from the 1850s and a contemporary woman lawyer who seeks to learn her story.

Tara Corklin has created a complex novel with two plotlines. One features Josephine Bell, a young slave who serves as a “house girl” on a failing plantation. Her mistress takes a special interest in her and encourages her drawing and painting. Somewhat arbitrarily, Josephine decides to run away, and readers follow her through the day of her escape. To leave is wrenching because of her affection for the slave couple who raised her and her gratitude for her dying mistress. The other plot follows Lina Sparrow, a lawyer just beginning a career at a major law firm in New York City. Her boss has decided to involve the firm in a suit demanding reparations for the descendants of slaves. He asks Lina and a black male colleague to do the research for the case. Lina, whose father is an artist, discovers the art of Josephine and finds a white man descended from her who has no knowledge of slave ancestors. Lina had been raised solely by her father since she was four. Just as she becomes engaged in tracking down Josephine, her feelings about both of her parents develop into another crisis.

While Conklin is a good writer, the summary of her plots suggests the problems in the book. At first the shifts between the plots flow smoothly, but as tension rises in both, the plots compete rather than complement each other. Too much is going on. As a reader I came to resent interrupting the suspense of one story to go to the other. By the end, I felt I had not become sufficiently involved with any of the characters to identify with them. I suspect this is a first novel in which the author simply wanted to do too much too quickly.

Slavery is a difficult subject and Conklin is to be commended for dealing with it accurately. It was an institution that varied widely. Josephine’s situation as a “house girl” was not typical, as the author acknowledges, but her story falls within the range of possibilities. Yet small errors, not important in themselves, distracted me. For example, the sun doesn’t shine on the boxes in the archives because any respectable archivist would know that sunshine is harmful to documents. I also found it hard to imagine that a law firm such as the one described would ever think of involving themselves in a suit over reparations. The black men, particularly the rich client proposing the suit, were hardly positive characters. I do not advocate that all characters be positive, but I felt the client was a stereotype; a caricature of Herman Cain.

The need for tolerance and inter-racial appreciation seem to be the underlying messages of The House Girl. I certainly applaud such themes. Good intentions do not always produce good stories, however. I wondered if Lina’s research on Josephine changed her in any significant way. What did slavery have to do with Lina’s conflicts over her parents? Perhaps we are to assume that Lina’s experience at the law firm and in her father’s home was meant to parallel Josephine’s on the plantation. Such an assumption ignores the reality of slavery. It raises the question whether Conklin, who got her facts about slavery correct, really understood what it was like.

Other books about and by slave women that provide insight into their lives:

A Thousand Nightingales, by Susan Straight. A wonderful novel about a slave women in Louisiana.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs. A fine narrative of an actual woman about her years in slavery and her escape from it.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2012 11:47 am

    Sounds like a fine intriguing novel. Wonderful review

  2. December 21, 2012 8:25 am

    “Good intentions do not always produce good stories”
    Eloquently put. And it’s something that as reviewers we must be willing to say.
    Great review.

    • December 21, 2012 10:49 am

      Thanks. I was sorry to be critical but elt I had to state the problems I saw,

  3. annabelsmith permalink
    January 2, 2013 1:53 am

    Interesting. I’d been attracted to this book but it sounds disappointing. Thanks for writing an honest review.

    • January 2, 2013 9:33 am

      Yes. I was also attracted to the idea of the book, but I think the author simply tried to do more than she had the skills and experience to do. Nowhere near as good as your writing.

  4. annabelsmith permalink
    January 3, 2013 9:18 pm

    Well, thank you, that’s very kind. I think it’s a common problem with debut novels, to try and do more than you’re capable of – and I think that’s where a good editor comes in.

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