Monday, April 1, 2013

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

The House Girl was on the featured shelves at the front of the library and I picked it up based on both the cover and the title.  I was intrigued by the premise and I wanted to read something for Black History Month.  Even though I finished it about a month late, I'm still glad I read it.

The plot focused on the parallel lives of two very different women: Lina, a young lawyer at a white shoe law firm and Josephine, a house slave in Virginia.  Their stories intersect when a major client of Lina's law firm wants to start a reparations suit on behalf of the descendants of slaves (he estimates an unjust enrichment of nearly 7 trillion dollars based on slave labor) and needs a compelling lead plaintiff.  Lina's father, an artist just beginning to achieve commercial success and preparing for a show featuring images of Lina's dead mother, Grace, brings up a recent controversy regarding the authorship of the paintings of Lu Ann Bell, an iconic southern artist.  Scholars have started to question whether the paintings were made by Lu Ann or by her house slave, Josephine Bell.  Lina decides that a descendant of Josephine would be the perfect lead plaintiff for her case, but there are no records of Josephine after Lu Ann's death in 1852.  Lina begins her search and the reader learns more about Josephine's life and, of course, Lina's own life.

Overall, I enjoyed the book.  It was well-written and the structure was interesting.  It's divided into three sections, each with a different set of narrators.  Part one features Lina and Josephine; part two uses Lina, Josephine, and Dorthea, the sister of a well-known abolitionist and suffragette; and part three goes back to Lina, Josephine, and Caleb, a man who plays a small but significant part of the story.  Lina's story, obviously, is told from her own point of view.  Josephine's story, however, is told not only from her point of view, but also through articles and letters.  Overall, the book's structure reminds of A.S. Bryant's Possession.

Unsurprisingly, a book involving this subject matter is going to raise some interesting issues. First and foremost, not only was the book written by a white woman, but Lina, another white woman, was the driving force behind the story.  That's obviously problematic when the subject of a book is about slavery and a black woman's voice being silenced by a white woman.  Most of the other well-developed characters were white, including Dorthea, Caleb, and Jasper, a possible descendant of Josephine and a potential lead plaintiff (and potential love interest for Lina).  Dresser, the client behind the lawsuit, is black, but although he has strong personal convictions about suit, he's also only doing it because it's politically expedient.  Consider one of his quotes:
We would not be the world's superpower today if we had not had two hundred and fifty years of free, limitless labor on which to build our economy... What were their names, Dan?  They were our founding fathers and mothers just as much as the bewigged white men who laid the whip against their backs.  Isn't it time this country made the effort to remember them?

Then this one:

"I've gotten confidential confirmation that, after we file the suit, the government will issue a formal apology for slavery... We'll pull the government claim and then the feds will ut some pressure on our corporate defendants to settle... It's a nice distraction, you know, atone for the sins of the past, maybe divert attention away from the perceived sins of the present.  But it's the deep pockets we're concerned with here.  The government gets to look like the good guy, and we get some real weight behind us."

Since the book is set in 2004, one of the major "perceived sins of the present"  was, of course, Abu Ghraib.  So the only real person of color in the contemporary part of the story is not only not very fleshed out, but also at least a little amoral regarding the subject.  It also strikes me as a bit problematic that the potential face of the effects of slavery today was not only white (technically about 1/64th black), but had no idea that he had a black ancestor or that said ancestor was a slave.

As a white woman, I don't feel comfortable going too far into the racial issues, but I am comfortable discussing the gender issues.  Specifically, as with the race issue, this is also a story of women, but again, it's driven forward by men.  Not only that, but it seems to pit woman against woman a lot.  First, Lina is threatened by Meridith.  Here's the description of her:
[T]he six-foot blond litigation associate rumored to be dating a Yankees outfielder... Meridith sat ramrod straight in meetings, she spoke articulately, rationally, with apparent  interest [about a variety of subjects].  Lina saw her as a nemesis of sorts, an otherworldly being who provoked Lina's competitive streak as well as her annoyance.  (Meridith frequently forgot Lina's name.)
 Second, the issue of authorship of the paintings is presented as a zero-sum game.  Lu Ann Bell had been embraced "by modern feminists  as civil rights activists as a woman who, due to the constraints of the society in which she lived, expressed her beliefs in the only way she could: through her art."  It's important to remember that Lu Ann never took credit for Josephine's work.  In fact, since apparently neither Lu Ann nor Josephine signed their work, the authorship was only assumed.  Second, Lu Ann was an artist, but lacked Josephine's talent.  Regardless of her natural ability, though, her art was still an outlet.  Despite all of this, though, it's presented as an either/or situation.  If Josephine's authorship is acknowledge, then, as the archivist at former home of Lu Ann (and Josephine) said, Lu Ann (or at least the idea of her) will be "lost."

In both examples, there's the clear idea that the greatest threat to a woman is another woman.  In Lina's case, there's no particular reason given for her to see Meridith as a bigger threat than any other first year associate, but for some reason, she does.  In the case of Josephine and Lu Ann, there's the idea that only one of them can be given a voice and the other has to sink into the same voicelessness that countless other women have suffered.  It doesn't matter that both women have a story to tell and that story would, in turn, help provide a voice for other women in the same position.  Apparently, a woman has to earn the right to be heard and only the great artist gets a voice.  The other woman, the one who made mediocre art, sinks back into obscurity.

Finally, there's the issue of Josephine's child.  Her child's father was white.  More accurately, her  child's father was Lu Ann's husband, "Mister," and the child was the product of rape.  While this was examined more specifically in some of the information I came across while looking for some background information and while Conklin did explore this issue a bit and while she did examine the strain this placed on the relationship between Lu Ann and Josephine, the full horror of it wasn't explored.  Oddly enough, I feel that The Office did a better job addressing the problems of that issue.

I want to emphasize that I absolutely enjoyed the book and I think Conklin did a great job of exploring difficult subject matter.  In fact, the very fact that these issues occurred to me proves that Conklin wrote a thought-provoking book.  I think that most of my criticisms are more a product of society at large and even the greatest novel dealing with this subject matter is going to still have its shortcomings when it comes to examining issues of race and gender.  In fact, I feel like I'm completely ignoring some other important parts of the book, such as Lina's feelings toward her dead mother and how her father's art exhibition of portraits of her mother affects her not because they don't merit examination, but because there's so much to discuss.   Furthermore, I think that a lot of the more problematic aspects of the book are the most realistic, such as murky motivations for filing the suit, glossing over the implications of a white man being descended from a slave, and the adversarial relationship between women.  That said, I can't recommend this book enough.  Not only did it keep me engaged until the very end, once it was over, it made me think.