When industrious young lawyer Lina Sparrow is tasked with the responsibility of finding a direct descendant of an American slave to serve as the face of a historic class-action reparations lawsuit her firm is undertaking, she at first finds the mission exciting yet daunting. While this could make her career it is far from an easy case and she has little time in which to do it. Then her artist father introduces her to a controversy in the art world that might be exactly what she is looking for: paintings once thought to be the work of Lu Anne Bell, a much lauded antebellum artist known for her paintings and drawings of various slaves working on her husband’s Virginia farm, are now suspected to actually be the work of Lu Anne’s house slave, Josephine Bell. As Lina digs further and further into not only the truth behind the Bell paintings but the fate of Josephine Bell, she is forced to also face her own haunting past and what really happened to her mother, an artist herself, who Lina was told mysteriously died when she was a small child.
Weaving back and forth between 1852 Virginia and modern New York, The House Girl presents a bitter sweet story of determination, truth and the search for freedom in all its guises. Alternating between Lina’s and Josephine’s voices as well as letters of those working with the underground railroad to assist slaves like Josephine in their desperate flight to freedom, the story is at once both inspiring and utterly heartbreaking. Josephine’s story line is by far the most interesting and is a true testament to the horrible depravities of slavery as well as the glimmers of hope that can emerge when people shed their fears and do what is right, regardless of what consequences it might bring.
While I enjoyed seeing the similarities between Lina and Josephine – determined and strong women who both lost their mothers early in life – Lina’s progression and story line fell somewhat flat for me. The constant lawyer talk about billable hours became grating after a while and I had a hard time really sympathizing with her. Next to Josephine’s unbelievably beautiful story it was hard to feel for Lina and I kept rushing to get back to Josephine’s story. However, this might be an unfair statement as I found Josephine’s story so fascinating it would have taken a lot to not have me rushing to get back to it.
All in all The House Girl is a beautiful story and offers up so much for discussion. No matter your personal feelings towards the subjects discussed any reader would be hard pressed to not feel compassion and sadness for this dark mark on American history. While I won’t say that the story wraps up in a pretty, happy bow I will say that it leaves off with the feeling of hope for a better future if one is willing to let go of the past and fight for the future they want. It is only by facing the truth, regardless of what that might be, that contentment can be found. With The House Girl, Ms. Conklin makes the reader face all of these facts head on and does a wonderful job in doing so.
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by William Morrow Paperbacks. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.