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home : art & life : art & life August 17, 2017

5/9/2013 12:53:00 PM
'The House Girl'
By Sue Brooke

“The House Girl” by Tara Conklin is an historical novel that begins on a failing Virginia tobacco farm in 1852. The author alternates the stories of an escaped house slave, Josephine Bell, in 1852 and Lina Sparrow, a young corporate attorney working in an prestigious law firm in contemporary New York.
Josephine’s story is told in alternating chapters. She has been brought into the house from the fields making her life seemingly easier than that of the field slaves, and has a unique relationship with her ailing mistress. Lu Anne Bell, who, over the years has experienced numerous unsuccessful pregnancies and is quite ill, almost thinks of Josephine as her child and even allows Josephine to paint alongside her. Josephine is privileged to have been taught to read and write and help her mistress paint at a time when there are laws against such things.
Moving between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, the author presents a complex story of history and art and secrets. The author writes sensitively about what it means to explore a wrong that occurred 150 years before. Lu Anne has been credited for all the paintings found in her estate when she died in 1852. But now there is evidence that some of the art work was painted by another hand, possibly by her slave, Josephine, who ran away in 1852.
 In 2004, Lina Sparrow, a young lawyer in New York City, is given an assignment that involves a reparations lawsuit. Through her father, the famous artist Oscar Sparrow, she is invited to an exhibition of the works of  19th-century painter Lu Anne Bell, where she discovers the story of Josephine. Lina is assigned a case wherein she will present a living plantiff, as her law firm intends to file a class action suit asking for reparations to all the descendants of slaves. The proceeds will be used to erect a monument and to donate funds to various charities. As Lina investigates, she discovers old letters and Bell plantation records. Her research also uncovers accounts of the slave trade business where people “returned slaves for a reward.” Sometimes the captured “slaves” were actually free. 
“The House Girl” is a first novel for former attorney Tara Conklin. Although the life of a 19th-century black slave and a 21st-century white lawyer are not comparable, this story is carefully researched and draws the reader into the tragedy of Josephine.

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