Summary and book reviews of The House Girl by Tara Conklin

The House Girl

by Tara Conklin

The House Girl
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2013, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2013, 384 pages

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Book Summary

A stunning debut novel of love, family, and justice that intertwines the stories of an escaped house slave in 1852 Virginia and ambitious young lawyer in contemporary New York

Virginia, 1852. Seventeen-year-old Josephine Bell decides to run from the failing tobacco farm where she is a slave and nurse to her ailing mistress, the aspiring artist Lu Anne Bell.

New York City, 2004. Lina Sparrow, an ambitious first-year associate in an elite law firm, is given a difficult, highly sensitive assignment that could make her career: she must find the "perfect plaintiff" to lead a historic class-action lawsuit worth trillions of dollars in reparations for descendants of American slaves.

It is through her father, the renowned artist Oscar Sparrow, that Lina discovers Josephine Bell and a controversy roiling the art world: are the iconic paintings long ascribed to Lu Anne Bell really the work of her house slave, Josephine? A descendant of Josephine's would be the perfect face for the reparations lawsuit - if Lina can find one. While following the runaway girl's faint trail through old letters and plantation records, Lina finds herself questioning her own family history and the secrets that her father has never revealed: How did Lina's mother die? And why will he never speak about her?

Moving between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, this searing, suspenseful and heartbreaking tale of art and history, love and secrets, explores what it means to repair a wrong and asks whether truth is sometimes more important than justice.

Read the story behind the book

Josephine

Lynnhurst, Virginia
1852

Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run. She heard the whistle of the blow, felt the sting of skin against skin, her head spun and she was looking back over her right shoulder, down to the fields where the few men Mister had left were working the tobacco. The leaves hung heavy and low on the stalk, ready for picking. She saw a man's bare back and the new hired man, Nathan, staring up at the house, leaning on a rake. The air tasted sweet, the honeysuckle crawling up the porch railings thick now with flower, and the sweetness mixed with the blood in her mouth.

The blow came without warning, no reason that Josephine could say. She had been sweeping the front porch as she always did first thing, clearing off the dust and leaves blown up by the night wind. A snail had marked a trail across the dew-wet wood of the porch floor and rested its brown shell between the two porch rockers....

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. As a servant in the Bell's home Josephine is literally "The House Girl." But how does this title also apply to Lina's character? What is the significance of Lina leaving her father's house at the close of the story?

  2. The definition of "family" is unclear in this story: Lina's mother is absent for all of her life, Josephine's son is fathered by her married master. As Lina reflects on her mother's artwork she wonders whether you can create family connections: "What is blood and what is decision?" What is your response?

  3. Separated by more than two centuries, Lina and Josephine's characters never meet, but Conklin's narrator tells this story through each of their perspectives. What similarities do ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

I've read many books set in the US's slavery era, and this is one of the best. It poses a unique connection between a young slave "house girl" and a driven New York lawyer. The House Girl portrays an inspiring story of how, through art, a person survives long after leaving this world.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

Full Review Members Only (802 words).

Media Reviews

Seattle Times

Conklin ... is a skilled writer ... who knows how to craft a thoughtful page-turner ...We’re glued to the pages.

Publishers Weekly

Striving for affecting revelations, Conklin manages nothing more than unsatisfying platitudes and smugly pat realizations.

Booklist

Stretching back and forth across time and geography, this riveting tale is bolstered by some powerful universal truths.

Kirkus Reviews

Provocative issues of race and gender intertwine in earnest if uneven issues-oriented fiction.

Bookpage

Luminous . . . The rare novel that seamlessly toggles between centuries and characters and remains consistently gripping throughout . . . Powerful.

Library Journal

Starred Review. A seamless juxtaposition of past and present, of the lives of two women, and of the redemptive nature of art and the search for truth and justice. Guaranteed to keep readers up long past their bedtimes.

Author Blurb Amy Greene, author of Bloodroot
Tara Conklin’s powerful debut novel is a literary page-turner filled with history, lost love, and buried family secrets. Conklin masterfully interweaves the stories of two women across time, all while asking us to contemplate the nature of truth and justice in America.

Author Blurb Margot Livesey, New York Times bestselling author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy
There’s so much to admire in The House Girl -- two richly imagined heroines, two fully realized worlds, a deeply satisfying plot -- but what made me stand up and cheer was the moral complexity of these characters and the situations they face. I’m grateful for this transporting novel.

Author Blurb Hillary Jordan, author of Mudbound and When She Woke
The House Girl is an enthralling story of identity and social justice told through the eyes of two indomitable women, one a slave and the other a modern-day attorney, determined to define themselves on their own terms.

Reader Reviews

dlpiano

The House Girl
The House Girl was full of unraveling mysteries that kept me reading in order to find the outcome! At the same time the insight into slavery and the modern cooperate world was enlightening! The ending was not what I expected or wanted but I truly ...   Read More

Emily G. (Clear Lake, MN)

Skillful handling of complex stories
It took me a while to get drawn into this book. I was skeptical about the slavery reparations lawsuit that serves as a catalyst for Lina Sparrow's search and I feared another slave narrative. However, about half way through the book, I realized...   Read More

Marjorie (Florida)

Art Redeems the Soul
Josephine Bell is the catalyst that launches an inquiry into the historical past, to unearth the mystery of what happened to the artist who fashioned the artwork that survived time. Her story is not unlike others in her class and station, in the late...   Read More

Sherrie B. (Fishers, IN)

Absolutely fascinating!
The combination of present day and 1800's history is amazing. This is such a different story and so smartly written. I would highly recommend this to all booklovers but especially people who enjoy good historical fiction.

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Beyond the Book

Restitution and Restorative Justice

Tara Conklin's novel The House Girl weaves two stories together: 17-year-old Josephine, a slave who flees a tobacco farm in West Virginia in 1852, and Lina, a lawyer seeking reparations for the descendants of African American slaves in 2004. While the idea of reparations is not new, it has gained more of a spotlight within the last decade.

To understand its concept, it is useful to understand the philosophy of Restorative Justice, which seeks to restore harm done to both the victim of a particular crime and the community from which the victim comes. Unlike Retributive Justice, which focuses specifically on punishment for the breaking of laws, it addresses the wider social network: the people who are affected by those broken laws, and ...

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