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The House Girl, Tara Conklin

The House Girl - Tara Conklin

The book concentrates on a case about reparations for the ancestors of slaves. This is an investigation into the lost hopes and dreams of nameless thousands of people and the consideration of whether or not they are entitled to any kind of recognition, monetary or otherwise. On the surface, it would seem that the company sponsoring this law suit is interested in getting money from the families who wronged the slaves, and who prospered from their efforts, in order to better the situation of the black population today, descendants of slaves, by memorializing them, enhancing their opportunities, and thereby, improving their economic future. In the end, the reader will wonder what truly motivated the firm seeking the law suit, personal greed or altruism.

Two stories lives side by side in this book, separated by more than a century, connected by two important themes, one is freedom and the other is justice. All of the characters are seeking freedom, in some way, although some efforts are more intense, are about life and death, and some perhaps are about saving one’s soul or self in the search for truth and introspection. The search for justice in life and in death, in personal and public life, in the legal and criminal world, is evident throughout. When secrets are revealed, the way is opened for life-changing events. The two themes, one  of greed and the need for personal gain over all else, and the other, its counterpart, compassion and the care and consideration of others, constantly oppose each other as the book moves on. The reader will witness the pain caused by the one and the salvation caused by the other. The book will quietly expose the subtle current day racism that still exists in both the white and the black community.

In 1852, Josephine Bell was a young teenage slave on the Bell tobacco farm, a decaying homestead. Beset by bad luck, the farm is descending into a state of neglect and less productivity, and the slaves are being sold off. Josephine, most likely of mixed race, lives in the main house as “the house girl”, and therefore has a bit better life than most of the dwindling number of slaves on the property, but she is still owned and is a prisoner there because of a depraved society, driven by greed. She was a proud young girl who had dreams of freedom and on more than one occasion tried to escape. The first time, she was defeated in her attempt, though she reached safety. She was in an advanced state of pregnancy and was forced to return and deliver a child that very same night. She was told the child did not survive. She was only 14 years of age and she still continued to dream of escape.

We learn of Josephine’s story through Carolina Sparrow, the daughter of a famous artist. She is a litigator assigned by her law firm to find a living plaintiff that can be traced back to a slave that has been wronged. While pursuing the investigation, she discovers a link between the slave-owning family of the prominent artist, Lu Anne Bell, and their slave Josephine, who was their house girl and who was also an artist, sometimes permitted to paint by her seriously ill mistress, but more often asked to complete her mistress’s paintings or correct and improve them. Whose paintings are they, the slave’s or her mistress’s? The reader is privy to correspondence between two sisters in a family that operates an “underground railroad”, and these letters were a highlight of the book. In Dorothea’s letters to her sister, we learn first hand about the danger her family faced in the endeavor to help the slaves and the surprising betrayals that follow their efforts. We witness the danger and fear of the escaping slaves, the trauma and the tragedies as well as the successes. It would be a cold person who remains unaffected by the plight of these persecuted people.

One half of the tale is the tenderly told story (although a repugnant part of our history), of the plight of the slave, Josephine Bell and others who suffered the same fate and harm as she did, captured and enslaved, often raped, beaten, murdered, separated from their families, treated as sub-humans, and the other is the hardscrabble story of upward mobility in the form of lawyer Carolina Sparrow, her fellow workers, her law firm, and their clients, the corporations that line their pockets. Although Lina is an important part of the story, for me, Josephine’s story overshadowed hers.

During her investigation, Lina’s artist father conveniently remembers a case in the art world, he recently read about, which might help her, and conveniently there is a showing of the work of the artist in question and a controversy developing about the slave who might actually deserve credit for the paintings. In the course of the investigation, she also meets people who know, or know of, her father and they, too, are willing to help her. Then she happens on a possible relative of a slave, by chance, and she is attracted to him. He is Jasper Battle, a man of mixed race, heavily tattooed, a musician who seems unfocused, and without a future at first glance, but she learns there is another deeper side of him to which she is drawn. Then there is the “piece de resistance”, the story about her mother. For me, all of these serendipitous moments were contrived and a bit too coincidental to be credible. Also, I found some of the parts about Lina to be tedious, especially when she read off names and sometimes when she ruminated about her research. Then, there is probably a hidden political message in this book, complete with a mention of Cheney and Iraq, but it is not heavy handed and is not distracting from the overall message.

It  is a very sad story about a very shameful time of our history. It is another in the genre so popular today that tries to illuminate the plight of the slave and the continuing struggle for civil rights. All readers will be forced to look inside themselves and wonder how slavery could ever have existed, how one human being could treat another so brutally and cruelly simply because it was lucrative to do so. How could there have been no moral conscience to stop this, how could it have taken so long to end the practice of owning a human being and treating “it” as less than human?

With its minor shortcomings, it is, nevertheless, a well told story, and it is a really good read which will open the mind of the reader and make the reader think about how it might be possible to right the wrongs of yesterday which are still quietly in existence today, and stop the forward momentum of the greed which has captured the mind of the country.