The House Girl by Tara Conklin

The House GirlJosephine is a slave in Virginia during the 1850’s at a failing plantation. She is the only slave left who works in the house and her main job is to take care of the Mistress, Lu Anne Bell. Lu Anne is in ill health, having lost 17 children in childbirth or shortly after. Her only solace is painting. She took Josephine under her wing when Josephine was a small girl, teaching her to read and allowing her some access to her paints and charcoals. Yet Josephine is still a slave, and still subject to the whims of her owners. The master has abused her and most of her friends have been sold away to raise funds. One day, when the master slaps her for no apparent reason, she decides it is finally time for her to run away.

Lina is a first year associate of a large corporate law firm in New York when she is asked to work on what her boss calls a history making case. They have been asked to take up the case of Slave Reparations, and Lina’s job is to find a descendant of slaves who would like to become a plaintiff. Lina’s father is a painter, and he suggests she look at a controversy that is brewing in the art world. A well respected critic is claiming that a series of paintings long attributed to a southern painter named Lu Anne Bell may actually have been painted by her slave, Josephine. Lina thinks this is the perfect case to add a human face to their financial claims. But she needs to find out not only if Josephine was the true artist, but whether she had any surviving family members.

Tara Conklin’s novel alternates between the story of slave Josephine’s final day when she decides to run, and lawyer Lina’s investigation of what may have happened to her after that. Lina is struggling to define herself and dealing with the effects of having lost her mother when she was young. As Josephine’s tale draws Lina in, she will learn more about herself and what she wants to do with her life. Josephine’s tale was the more riveting one, though, and I found myself racing through the book to find out what happens to her. My only criticism of the book is that Lina’s search was surprisingly too easy. As someone who has done some family research, I know that rarely do you find clues or answers in the first place you look. Despite this, I really enjoyed this book and look forward to more from this author!


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