The House Girl by Tara Conklin follows an enslaved house girl, Josephine and young lawyer, Lina. Alternating chapters, their stories are juxtaposed against one another--the events leading up to Josephine's escape from slavery in 1800's Virginia and the the events leading up to an escape of sorts for modern day New York City attorney, Lina, as she seeks to find a descendant of Josephine as potential plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the U.S. government for reparations.
Josephine tends to an ailing, barren woman and her aging husband on a Virginia plantation nearing it's demise. The field hands, including the loving couple who raised Josephine as their own until she was moved into the slave owner's house, are aging and no new slave purchases are being made. Josephine makes these and other observations as she spends time between the house and the slave quarters and captures images of her beloved friends and the plantation with paint and canvas. Her mistress paints to pass the time and allows Josephine paint and materials to create her own works of art. The author does a decent job of conveying the harsh realities of slavery and what a young slave girl's inner world might have been like as she worked up her resolve to run.
Lina is a bright young lawyer and daughter of a famous artist. Her search for a plaintiff for her case leads her to an art showing of paintings believed to have been painted by the house girl, Josephine, but with no proof, credit for the works are given to the mistress of the plantation. It's at the art showing that Lina decides she would find Josephine's descendants. Losing her mother as a toddler, and having only fragments of memories and her father's stories of her mother, Lina's mother is a mystery to her. She learns from friends of her mother's that she looks very much like her--dark hair, olive skin, Latino heritage maybe? She wondered because her mother named her Carolina, pronounced caro-lee-na, even though they are an English-speaking family. Eventually she begins to see that she has been deliberately kept in the dark about the details of her mother's life by her father's design. While piecing together Joesphine's past, Lina finds herself also piecing together her own.
When the reparations case came up, I braced myself. Tara Conklin, the author, is not a black person. Frankly I wasn't sure how she would handle the subject. I was relieved as I read about the powerful black business man behind the lawsuit, and his desire not to win the case, but to force the country to have the conversation. He desired acknowledgement of the hard work that slaves did to build this country and wanted the government to apologize and to pay up, not with checks in the mail to every brown citizen, but in monuments and community enrichment programs and a wall listing every name of every slave who died building the industries that gave some of America's wealthiest families their riches. He wanted to open the books. He wanted a reckoning. He made his motives clear to Lina and her partner in an awesome bit of dialogue early on in the book. That got me excited. After that, I was like, okay Tara, let's see what you got here.
This book is beautifully written. Every character is richly developed. There's a side-story woven in about a family that helps on the Underground Railroad that is told almost completely in letters of correspondence that Lina finds in archives, and it had me turning pages so hard. Then there was one single unsent letter from the archives near the end of the book that spans about fifty pages that gave me so much life, y'all. The descriptions of the artwork in this book were so vivid that I feel like I'd recognize them if I ran across them. It would be so cool if an artist were to create the paintings in this book and hold a real exhibit in New York City. I can't imagine such a thing has never happened before. If it hasn't, let's hope an adventurous artists runs across my suggestion. While I'm on the topic of making this book live and breathe, with Lina's story set in modern day New York City, and Josephine's in the antebellum south, this book begs for a screenplay with amazing flashbacks. In the right hands, it could be an amazing film.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review. Y'all know good and well my reviews are always honest, so no need to ever question that. ;-)