Saturday, July 12, 2014

The House Girl, by Tara Conklin

The subject of reparations for slavery is a controversial one.  There is no question that this country was built on the labor of African slaves and the bonded laborers from Europe and Asia that came here in the thousands in the 18th and 19th centuries, and there is even some agreement about how to quantify the stolen wages and physical and emotional suffering.  But to whom would the money go?  How does one prove their ancestors were slaves, with so many records incomplete or lost?  And where does the money come from?  So many generations removed from the plantations, how would we even begin to trace where the present wealth came from, and is there any amount of money that can even begin to make up for the tragedy that was the trans-Atlantic slave trade?  Conklin uses this issue as the framework for her novel, The House Girl.

Set alternately in the late 1800s and the present day, the book tells the story of Josephine Bell, a house slave on a declining Virginia plantation.  Her mistress, Lu Ann Bell, is an aspiring artist.  She is also a high-strung woman, with an anxious temperament and poor health.  In a move that is unusual, and indeed illegal, for the time, Lu Ann taught her young house girl to read, and allowed her to draw and paint in her studio when she was feeling generous.  Lu Ann Bell is a capable artist, but Josephine's portraits and landscapes are luminous, capturing the inherent humanity of her fellow slaves while showcasing the lush beauty of the rural south.  Josephine is desperate to run away, has in fact tried to run away before, but she is conflicted about leaving her dying mistress, and her paintings.

The present day story follows lawyer Lina Sparrow.  Lina is tasked with working on a suit, to be brought against the federal government and many major US corporations, demanding reparations for slavery.  In researching a primary plaintiff for the suit, she is introduced to Lu Ann Bell and her art through a controversy brewing in the art world-was the work really done by Lu Ann Bell, or by her house slave, Josephine.  Bell's family is desperate to prove that she painted the works attributed to her, but others in the art world aren't so sure.  Lina discovers a possible descendant of Josephine's who would make a great plaintiff, but while preparing the case she is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about her own past.

A story like this one could become little more than political speech as narrative, but Conklin manages to write an engaging story that highlights the many injustices of slavery, as well as present day controversy surrounding reparations, in a way that does not feel preachy.  I've read plenty of other books about slavery, but the art angle makes this one unique. And it is not just a slavery narrative, not that those aren't important and engaging, as well.  This story is about family connections, loss, motherhood, and identity in a more general sense.  Josephine and Lina both come alive on the pages with an emotional impact that draws the reader in.  The book will appeal to anyone interested in the legacy of slavery, or art, or the modern day reparations movement.

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