Two stories intertwine in Seattle author Tara Conklin’s debut novel, “The House Girl” (Morrow, 368 pp., $25.99), one more compelling than the other. In 1852 Virginia, teenage Josephine is a slave (she’s the “house girl” of the title) and aspiring artist on a tobacco farm who’s determined, on one warm September day, to escape and gain her freedom. More than a century and a half later, Lina Sparrow is a young lawyer in Manhattan, assigned to a class-action lawsuit to gain reparation for descendants of American slaves. The daughter of a famous artist, Lina quickly finds herself also entwined in an art-world controversy, as a current art exhibition asks the question: Were the much-praised plantation drawings by 19th-century Southern artist Lu Anne Bell actually the work of her slave, Josephine?
Conklin, a former litigator who’s previously published several works of short fiction, is a skilled writer (I loved the description of a New York secretary’s head as “a display case” for her elaborate hair) who knows how to craft a thoughtful page-turner. Though we know early on that Josephine’s flight can’t possibly turn out well, we’re glued to the pages as she plans her escape. This captive girl, who knows happiness only when she’s drawing, is a touching and often riveting character — one who’s learned to “fold down rising emotion just as she would fold the clean bed sheets, the sheet growing smaller and tighter with each pass until all that remained of that wide wrinkled expanse of cotton was a hard closed-in square.”
We sense, through Josephine, just how very long that September day was; the salty taste of blood from a slap from the master; and her complex feelings — “sour and sweet, hot and cold” — toward her mistress, Lu Anne (“Missus”), a confused middle-aged woman dying from a mysterious ailment. She was “not Josephine’s protector, not her confidante, not her friend,” but she had taught Josephine to read and given her a dress that was “the prettiest thing she had ever held in her hands.” But Josephine knows that if she is ever to know the freedom to “sit for a moment, herself, no one claiming her time or her thoughts or the product of her mind and hands,” she must, at great risk, run.
Woven with details of life on a plantation and tidbits of history of the Underground Railroad, Josephine’s story resonates with the reader far more so than that of Lina, a less well-drawn character who feels more like a type (she’s an ultra-lawyer who notes that a nonbusiness lunch takes “1.6 hours”) than a person. Lina’s story, filled with cluttery plot (a dead mother, a lot of workplace drama) wraps up rather too easily, with a love interest that we see coming from a mile away. But Conklin wisely gives Josephine the first and last words in “The House Girl”; we leave her, on a dark road, gazing up at a silvery moon and letting herself feel hope — if only for a moment.
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Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.