Monday, February 01, 2016

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

A trove of paintings is discovered, apparently the work of an unschooled southern woman, Missus LuAnne Bell. An astounding discovery in itself, but even more astounding to discover that the work was not done by Bell (or not only by her), but instead by a slave house girl, Josephine, a teenager with no art training, taught to read and write by her Missus, in secret and hidden from  Mister Bell the owner of the farm and of Josephine. This is the bare bones of the 2013 debut novel of Tara Conklin.

Actually the story goes back and forth between the 1850s and the early 2000s. Lisa Sparrow is an ambitious young attorney in a big New York firm who divides her life into billable hours,  (1.6 hours on the phone with a client, .5 hours for lunch) and taking care   of her artist father and his crumbling brownstone.

While Josephine takes care of her frail Missus, ministering to her quickly failing body, she also takes up the brush to smooth and correct the rather crude brushstrokes of her would-be artist Missus, her inner life is consumed by one thought—just how and when she will run. The penalties for even an attempt at escape are severe. One slave on the farm who tried more than once to run has had his heels cut so deeply that he can barely walk, and young girls who are apprehended by the roving groups of men who patrol the roads looking for runaways are often enough dealt with immediately and permanently. And still, Josephine can think only of running. Run, run, run.

Lisa is surprised that her rich, corporate firm even takes on the slave reparations case that she is assigned to, but understands that a rich and powerful client of the firm is behind the decision. And while Lisa searches for a lead witness, a modern-day descendent to serve as the face of the reparations case, she also attempts to unravel the mystery of her own mother’s disappearance from her life when she is still a young child. Her father has always said Lisa’s mother was killed in a car-wreck, but he provides almost no details and is always elusive when questioned by Lisa. Yet another mystery thread in this complex and richly peopled novel.

What makes this novel so interesting and worthwhile besides the very cleverly told story is the immense research Conklin did of the abolitionist movement and the underground railroad that helped so many slaves escape to the north. One young woman, about the same age as Josephine and Lisa, begins to help her father in his attempts to help slaves escape. In letters to her sister, Dorthea (Dot) outlines just how her father plays his part in the desperate escapes.
It is quite amazing, Kate, the method that father employs…Father hides the runaways inside the casket shipments he sends to northern buyers. The journey is three days, first by wagon & then by train, & there is a man who meets them at the station in Philadelphia & brings the delivery to a place of safety where the caskets are unloaded & the Negroes returned to the world.
The reader is taken back and forth between the lives of these three women, Josephine, Lisa, and Dorthea.

Despite Josephine’s constant preoccupation with running, she is torn between a stubborn loyalty to her frail, and in fact dying, Missus and her thirst for freedom.
Josephine lowered her hand. It was Missus’ face, stricken even in sleep, sallow even by lamplight, the scabbed gash like a bristling insect on her cheek, that stopped Josephine. Her face was no longer young or beautiful, her wasted face. And it seemed Josephine’s heart pulsed with the skittering movements of Missus’ eyes, that the two of them lay prostrate together before the same cruel God. The two of them not so different after all, Josephine realized. All this time, these long, hungry years, each of them alone beside the other…After she was gone, who would care for Missus Lu? Who would hold her down when she shook, comb her hair, fetch what she needed, see what she ate? Mister would never do such things. He had no money for another house girl. 
There are many side stories and mysteries in this fine novel, as Lisa uncovers the real story of her mother’s disappearance, and as a lead witness/victim is chosen to represent the reparations case. But I will not divulge the mysteries nor their solutions. Tara Conklin was a litigator for a corporate law firm, but fortunately for us readers, she now devotes all of her time to writing fiction. She is a gifted story-teller and a diligent researcher who has produced an excellent historical novel.

No comments:

Post a Comment