Book Review: The House Girl

house girlThe House Girl by Tara Conklin holds every hallmark to become a favoured historical fiction novel.  Family secrets, pre-Civil War American history, perserverance of the human spirit, alternating time perspectives…it’s all in there!

Many may know of my personal penchant for the historical fiction genre,  especially if it involves personal history in some way and definitely when it shows the perseverance of the human spirit or the willingness of those few that put their own lives in danger for others. The House Girl offers all of this and more.

Here’s what The House Girl has to offer (taken from Tara Conklin’s site): Lina Sparrow, an ambitious first-year associate in an elite Manhattan law firm, is given a difficult, highly sensitive assignment that can make her career: find the “perfect plaintiff” to lead a historic class-action lawsuit worth trillions of dollars in reparations for the descendants of American slaves.

An unexpected lead comes from her father, renowned artist Oscar Sparrow, who tells her about a controversy currently rocking the art world. Art historians now suspect that the revered paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist known for her humanizing portraits of slaves from her plantation Bell Creek, were actually the work of her house slave, Josephine. A descendant of Josephine’s would be the perfect face for the firm’s lawsuit—if Lina can find one.  But nothing is known about Josephine’s fate following Lu Anne Bell’s death in 1852.  Did Josephine die at Bell Creek?  Was she sold? Or did she escape?  Searching for clues in old letters and plantation records, Lina begins to piece together Josephine’s story—a journey that leads her to question her own life, including the full story of her mother’s mysterious death twenty years before.

Alternating between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, this searing tale of art and history, love and secrets explores what it means to repair a wrong, and ask whether truth is sometimes more important than justice.

Josephine and Lina are two superb and inspirational women, but it wasn’t only them that drew me so deeply in to this story. No, because while I’m a sucker for personal historical fiction, I’m an even bigger devotee to ones that are written using letters as a way to tell the story. Oh how I adore those! And, The House Girl features much using this format, between sisters and in one part, and a letter from a father to his son in another. Through much of this book I couldn’t keep my eyes away from it, but when it came time to read the letters written by Dorthea Rounds to her sister Kate, I was enthralled. Dorthea has but a fleeting moment with Josephine, but it is her writing about her abolitionist work with her father that is truly fascinating. These letters describe the danger the Rounds involved themselves all in order to help the tortured and mistreated slaves seek freedom. Ms. Conklin has written complete fiction in these women and in this particular tale, but has done such an astounding job on making it seem as though we were reading about true historical figures. (Believe me, I was searching online!) Much like myself, Lina, while researching this “perfect plaintiff” becomes entranced in the correspondence written by Dorthea, and also develops this fierce bond with the history of a woman whom lived 150 years before.  The writing in these letters were like a gift and just added such richness to the tale.

Even when it flips back to the present day and we read of Lina and her personal and professional struggles, we are not left wanting for the quick return to Josephine’s tale, because Lina’s is just as engrossing! The House Girl is a thoroughly enjoyable tale! I know you will be seeing this book around quite often once it releases (mid-Februrary). It is definitely going to be sought after book-club read and is for certain a Literary Hoarders approved book!

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