In her debut novel, Tara Conklin weaves the story of a slave, Josephine, in pre-Civil War times with that of an aspiring young lawyer, (Caro)Lina Sparrow, in 2004. The House Girl alternates chapters between each of the protagonists. The reader first meets Josephine as she is plotting to run away from her life as the house girl for a mistress who has been a painter and is now very ill and her abusive husband. Lina has just been given an assignment for which she must find a plaintiff who is the descendant of a slave in order to further a reparation case that is being staged.
The story of Josephine and her mistress, Lu Anne Bell is an interesting one. Lu Anne. Lu Anne was an artist whose works have been acclaimed into the 21st century. She was at times a lenient mistress who even taught Josephine how to read. She and her tobacco grower husband had no children as Lu Anne suffered numerous miscarriages. But freedom was important to Josephine and she was determined to make her way through the underground railroad north.
Lina is a bright young woman who lives with Oscar Sparrow, her father and renowned artist. Her mother is dead and she feels somewhat compelled to remain in the family home as a help and support for her father. When the opportunity presents itself at work to contribute to the law suit that will bring millions to the firm, she jumps at the chance and digs into the research. Her path leads her to the story of Lu Anne and Josephine and the possibility of a descendant who would fit the profile for which she is looking. Her treatment by her boss and colleague at the firm is abhorrent and misogynistic.
The novel was an easy read, but it was not without some issues. First, the idea of a law firm taking on a case for reparations is a bit far-fetched. I am not sure that is could ever happen or be successful. Second, Lina must do some genealogical research to prover her point. For anyone who has dealt with this type of research, you know that it just doesn't fall into your lap, isn't always readily available on the Internet, or can be done over a weekend. The people that Lina meets to help her also seem a bit contrived and put into the novel to make a story "come out well." Although I wanted to like her, Lina's character just wasn't that endearing. I found Josephine's story much more engaging and appealing although it was painful to read.
It does seem like Conklin is another lawyer hoping to make it in the publishing world. For me, the jury is still out with my reaction to the book being very lukewarm. The Gables Book Club was divided on this one.