Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Tuesday, October 1, 2013: Maximum Shelf: The House Girl

William Morrow: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

William Morrow: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

William Morrow: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

William Morrow: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

The House Girl

by Tara Conklin

In her quietly stunning debut novel, which was #1 IndieNext pick in hardcover, Tara Conklin gives a name and a story to a figure who is both a vital figure and an overlooked cypher in the antebellum American South--the house girl. Usually a secondary character at best and set dressing at worst, portrayed as quiet and obedient or humorously sassy, in Conklin's hands the house girl becomes a strong, tragic and fully realized human being, one whose impact echoes down the future long after her life is over.

In 1852 Virginia, 17-year-old house slave Josephine looks after her dying mistress, Lu Anne Bell, while trying to dodge her master's fists. Although her last escape attempt ended in recapture, abuse and the stillbirth of her child, Josephine is ready to run away again. While she waits for her chance, she soothes half-mad Lu Anne by putting finishing touches on the paintings Lu Anne is no longer able to complete. A naturally gifted artist, Josephine's talent far surpasses Lu Anne's, but her world has no place for a slave with aspirations beyond manual labor. Still, even if she is destined to struggle for her very freedom, Josephine's gift sustains her spirit, "for she is an artist with the untethered eye of an artist and everywhere beauty lies down at her feet."

In 2004 New York, ambitious young attorney Lina Sparrow is assigned to a landmark slavery reparations case. If she succeeds in building a credible case, she could be in line to make partner, but her supervisor's indifference to her ideas and a backstabbing coworker hamper her efforts. Then, through friends of her artist father, Lina learns of rumors that the celebrated Southern artist Lu Ann Bell's paintings may have been the work of Josephine, a house slave whose fate is lost to history. If Lina can find a descendant of Josephine to act as plaintiff, their case will have the perfect public face, but first Lina must do the near-impossible: solve the mystery of what happened to Josephine more than 150 years ago. Complicating matters is Lina's father's sudden desire to speak about Lina's deceased mother after long years of silence. Now that the answers to all her questions about her family are within her grasp, Lina suddenly fears what she will learn about her brilliant, stifled mother.

Alternating between Josephine and Lina's points of view, Conklin draws two distinct portraits that intersect in surprising ways. While Josephine is buoyed by art, it shapes Lina's life in other ways. As the daughter of two artists, she has a creative sensibility, especially when she ruminates on "evoked flashes of her mother and early childhood that seemed cast in butter, soft and dreamy, lovely, rich." However, her mother Grace's death and her father Oscar's obscurity have forced Lina to focus on practicality from a young age.

Conklin's former life as a litigator for a major corporate law firm shows in her depiction of a young female lawyer trying to break through her firm's glass ceiling without sacrificing her ethics, the details spot-on, from Lina's dismissive, fame-hungry boss and deceptively friendly colleague Garrison--"sharp as one of Oscar's palette knives"--to her exhaustive research into Josephine's life. While initially motivated by her career, Lina quickly becomes engrossed in the subject matter: "Two hundred and fifty years of nameless, faceless, forgotten individuals....Where was the monument? Where was the museum? What had they wished for and worked for and loved?" Her investigation of slave narratives brings home to Lina a truth she had known but not fully understood, that in the case of slavery, "The harm was everyone and everywhere.... The harm is immeasurable." Lina's work is done in the name of seeking reparations for the descendents of slaves, but her discoveries remind the reader that no amount of reparation can ever undo the injury done to so many for so long.

While Conklin's overt topic is the slavery of African Americans, the story is at the same time an exploration of the feminine experience with forms of slavery both official and more subtle. Josephine's mistress may represent the white slave-owning class, but she herself is bound by her marriage to a place and life she wishes she hadn't chosen. Lina's mother, while born in a time of greater freedom for women, found herself similarly trapped by the demands of marriage and motherhood with no good escape route. Foremost, of course, are the two main characters and their very different struggles for freedom. Josephine seeks physical freedom by risking her life to run from her master. In a supposedly liberated future, Lina chooses to work a grueling schedule as her supervisor takes advantage of her ambition without rewarding her industry, a vague echo of Josephine's slavery. Readers will yearn for both women to throw off their shackles, whether literal or self-imposed. Skillfully executed and packed with surprises, this story of the ways in which art saves our humanity is an engrossing, do-not-miss adventure. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Morrow, $14.99, paperback, 9780062207517, November 5, 2013

William Morrow: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

Tara Conklin: Art, History and Imagination

Tara Conklin has worked as a litigator in the New York and London offices of a major corporate law firm but now devotes her time to writing fiction. She received a BA in history from Yale University, a JD from New York University School of Law, and a Master's in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Conklin's short fiction has appeared in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology and the Pangea international anthology. Born in St. Croix, she grew up in Massachusetts and now lives with her family in Seattle, Wash. The House Girl is her first novel.

How did you develop the idea for The House Girl?

Very gradually. The book took me about five years to write and I didn't even think I was working on a novel until about two to three years into the process. The book began with the story of Caleb Harper, a doctor working for a slave catcher, and he led me to the characters of Dorothea Rounds, a white woman active on the Underground Railroad, and Josephine Bell, the enslaved woman who is really the heart of the book. At first, I assumed I was just writing a few connected stories to file alongside the many other (unedited, unpublished, unshared) stories I've written since I was a kid, but after I completed the three historical sections, the characters wouldn't leave me alone--Josephine, in particular, kept me up at night. I really wanted to bring them into the present day and give their histories contemporary relevance, which is how the idea of a slavery reparations lawsuit and the lawyer Lina Sparrow entered the picture.

The house that inspired Bell Creek. ©Dee Boehme

You must have done considerable research for the novel. Tell us about that process.

I read history books, slave narratives and any other first person accounts I could get my hands on from the time period. At a certain point, however, I had to stop researching. The horror of slavery became overwhelming--the individual losses, the injustice, the waste. I had to pull back and focus not on slavery as an institution but on Josephine Bell: one woman, one story. Otherwise, I don't think I could have finished the book.

Did you refer to any specific artists for inspiration when describing the art in the book, both Josephine's and Lina's father's?

I was thinking of the work of August Sander when describing Josephine's portraits. Sander was an early 20th century German photographer who took very straightforward, almost documentary-style portraits of people from all walks of German life. There's a tragic element in his work because he photographed just before the rise of the Nazi party and many of his subjects almost certainly didn't survive that time or were persecuted, as Sander himself was, while others perhaps became the persecutors. I thought Josephine's portraits might accomplish something similar--she is documenting the lives of those around her, presenting these people without commentary, but later viewers' understanding of history and the power structures of the time lend the pictures a deeper, more tragic meaning. Other than Sander, however, the rest of Josephine's and all of Oscar's art were purely imagined.

What do you think art's place in the human experience is? How does it compare with the place of law in our lives?

I think of art as an escape for some, a necessity for others. The function of law is entirely different: it's a way to regulate human interaction and bring some predictability and stability to our lives. I suppose law, at its best, exists behind the scenes--we're not really aware of its role until something goes wrong. Art, at its best, is preeminent. We create it or build our lives around it. I do believe what Jasper says in the book: anything can be art, if you care enough about it and do it well enough.

Josephine is a slave in the 19th century while Lina is a lawyer in modern times. What do they have in common that connects them?

They are both very strong-willed, smart and adept at hiding how they feel, both from others and from themselves. Of course, the circumstances of their lives could not be more different: Lina enjoys all the privileges and freedoms that Josephine does not. I see Lina and Josephine as vertically connected rather than horizontally, if that makes any sense. Josephine is Lina's predecessor--her mother, at least symbolically. In the book, Ron Dresser (the man behind the reparations lawsuit) says about enslaved people, "They were as much our founding mothers and fathers as the bewigged white man who lay a whip upon their backs." And those words resonate with Lina, both historically and personally. She knows very little about her own mother, Grace, but Josephine shares many of Grace's characteristics: a talented artist, a disappearance, a lost child. At the beginning of the novel, Lina is too afraid to really search for her own mother, and so she searches for Josephine instead. Josephine gives Lina the inspiration that she needs to move forward with her life, the courage to confront her own past. And, of course, in the process of finding Josephine, Lina finds herself.

Outside the world of fiction, do you believe a plantation slave would have ever had the time and means to create visual art?

Well, it depends what you mean by "visual art." People will always need to create--I think it's as human an instinct as the need to eat or love. Artifacts created by people while they were enslaved do exist today. Most that have survived would probably fall under the category of American folk art--weavings, dolls, pottery, wood carvings. I do think it would have been unusual for a slave, whether a field hand or house slave, to have access to the materials, space and free time to paint, but it seemed to me very possible that it could have happened, depending on the particular circumstances of that individual's enslavement.

What can we expect to see from you in the future?

I'm working now on a novel about three adult sisters and how they deal with the sudden death of their brother. It's very different in time and place from The House Girl but I'm seeing myself drawn to similar questions of family, personal identity and the redemptive nature of love. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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