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The House Girl: A Novel (P.S.) Paperback – November 5, 2013
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Author One-on-One: Maria Semple and Tara Conklin
Maria Semple: Tara, huge congratulations on The House Girl. How did this novel come into being?
Tara Conklin: Thanks, Maria. The novel began as a short story that I wrote about six years ago. I came across the term “slave doctor” in a book I was reading and the words made me stop. I became curious as to why a person dedicated to healing would take on such a role. From that initial spark of curiosity, I wrote a short story about a slave doctor, Caleb Harper, and two women appeared in his story. I say “appeared” because that’s really how it seemed to happen – Josephine and Dorothea just showed up and demanded my attention. I couldn’t stop wondering about these two characters and so I started writing separate stories about them, and I just kept writing.
MS: Josephine, a house slave in 1852 Virginia, became one of your narrators. The other, Lina, is a lawyer in present day New York. You practiced law before you became a novelist. Did Lina’s voice come easily by comparison?
TC: No, I actually found Lina’s sections tougher to get right. I think because Lina’s external world is more similar to mine, it was more difficult to imagine her – I kept bumping up against my own experience.
MS: That’s so surprising, that Josephine was the easier voice to get right.
TC: Josephine came to me very organically – I felt that I knew who she was and what she wanted early on in the writing. Her character was inspired by two people: one was an African-American artist named Mary Bell and the other was a former slave, Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman, who lived in my hometown during the 18th century. Mumbet said that if she could have one minute of freedom, only to die afterwards, she would make the trade. That strength of purpose helped me understand Josephine.
MS: While she's not a narrator, the character of Lu Anne Bell looms large over the story. She's quite mysterious and wonderful. I'm curious if she, too, is partly based on a real person.
TC: No, she is entirely fictional, but I’m glad that you thought otherwise! I wrote quite a bit of back story for Lu Anne that never made its way into the novel: her childhood in Mississippi, how she met Mister, why they fell in love. I see Lu Anne as an essentially tragic figure – I think she wants to break out of the world she’s been born into, but she can’t quite transcend it.
MS:You were born in St. Croix and grew up in Stockbridge, MA. Did growing up in these two vastly different environments influence you as a writer?
TC: Both places are steeped in history, so they’ve given me an appreciation for and curiosity about the past and how it helps shape the present. Both places also have substantial ties to slavery. I don’t remember much about St. Croix, but I grew up with my parents’ stories of the island’s racial tension, the horrible legacy of the sugar fields. When I was in elementary school in Stockbridge, I learned about the Underground Railroad and Mumbet (mentioned above), a slave who sued for her freedom in a Massachusetts court and won. These stories really stayed with me over the years.
MS: What are you reading now?
TC: I always have several novels on the go at once – right now I’m reading Zone One by Colson Whitehead, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and I’m re-reading A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, one of my all-time favorites.
Conklin persuasively intertwines the stories of two women separated by time and circumstances but united by a quest for justice. When law associate Lena Sparrow is handed a plum assignment—to find the perfect poster child for a class-action suit on behalf of the descendants of American slaves—she has little appreciation for how radically the task will change the course of her own life and destiny. As she searches for a descendant of Josephine Bell, a house girl rumored to have been the actual artist of a series of stunning paintings credited to her white mistress, she peels away layers of both Josephine’s past and her own complacency. Retracing Josephine’s often-elusive path, she uncovers some troubling facts about her parents and the startling lie that formed the basis of her childhood and young adulthood. Stretching back and forth across time and geography, this riveting tale is bolstered by some powerful universal truths. --Margaret Flanagan --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
I don't like to do spoilers in my reviews but as with all good things in life proceed with caution.
Upfront, I loved that the author doesn't always make it clear who is black/African American or a descendant of slaves unless ironically the concept of being high yellow, red bone or dark is introduced by another black person.
There are a time jumps from a Plantation in the South prior to the Civil War and a NYC modern day law firm.
Women and their roles in society dominate the narrative whether it's the frail /sick plantation owner, her house girl (slave), a young hippie artist in the 1980s and beautifully flawed power lawyer today.
Slavery reparations is legally and philosophically grappled with along with descendants rights. The "House Girl" and her female master/owner both produce fine art paintings while the moral and legal art rights are debated over a century later. We wrestle with the finding of descendents, children left behind while parents travel the underground railroad and the "better life" centuries later .
This is book is one I want my daughters to read. The ongoing sense of self worth, living your passion and parental forgiveness are wonderfully handled.
I highly recommend this book for both its historical and modern moral significance.
This story takes the life of a slave girl in the 1800's, and intertwines it with the life of a young attorney in today's world. The descriptive prose of the South almost made me smell the flowers, dirt, and dust in the rugs. It is a methodical meandering of lives and inner growth for almost everyone you meet in the story. The braiding of lives, into a final understanding is masterful. I am anxious to read whatever this author brings next!
I admit, I'm not a fan of this device. I'm not drawn to the dual storylines as I usually find it irritating to continually switch back and forth from past to present. And I usually end up liking one storyline much better than the other (the historical one, for the most part) and am frustrated when the narrative leaves it for the present.
Such was the case with The House Girl.
If I had been reading a physical copy of the book, I probably would have DNF'd it, even though I hate DNFing books. But I was very bored for the most part.
As it happened, I was listening to the audio book, and it was easy to put in my headphones and work and just let it play, not caring if I missed snippets here and there because I really wasn't all that invested.
On an audio side-note, the narrator employed some unfortunate character choices when it came to voices, and made Lina, the New York born-and-bred, 24-year-old present-day protagonist, who is a law associate on a partnership track at a very prestigious NYC law firm, sound about two peroxide bottles away from being a full blown sixteen-year-old California valley girl. I rolled my eyes every time she had dialogue, which was quite unfortunate.
House Girl is really two stories at once; starting off with the life of a young slave girl who works in the house of a planation owner who can barely make it on his tobacco farm. Set in Virginian, a few years before the start of the Civil War, or the “War of Northern Aggression” as the southerners think of it, and a modern story of a young, New York lawyer who is working on reparations for slavery case. Lina Sparrow’s modern life collides with Josephine Bell’s life bringing closure to both in a beautiful way. House Girl had one of the best, and most satisfying endings I’ve read in a long time.
We start following Josephine’s life in her late teens when she’s decided to run away again. Just 17 and she has saddest life I’ve ever heard of, giving the reader a bird’s eye view of just how awful the life of a slave could be. I can’t imagine how this way of life was condoned, in fact endorsed by the churches and religious folks of the day. Josephine is a naturally talented artist, helping her mistress, Missus Bell, in her paintings and charcoal drawings. In modern day, there is an art foundation that gives young women artists a chance, all in the name of a woman who is credited with paintings her slave had done. I couldn’t help wonder at how Josephine’s talent might have been developed if she’d had the freedom to live her own life instead of being ‘owned’ by someone else.
The insight into the very souls of the characters is what really made me love Conklin’s writing. “She thought her voice would be steady but it cracked towards the end, the echo of Mister’s blow still in her.” Page 7 . . . . the idea of running seemed to raw to bring out in the sunlight, with tasks to be done, hours to be got through.” Page 9 Josephine is remembering all of the slaves that have been lost to beatings, bee stings, running away, or being sold and after listening to a sermon she things to herself “It was only the Lord who would not leave her.” Page 71
I really loved this book, and I can’t wait to read another one by Tara Conklin.