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Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

Review: The House Girl

Sometimes a book resonates so strongly with its reviewer that the 250-work limit placed on an official review is simply too constricting. Thank you to AB4T reviewer Carla Riemer for her in-depth look at Tara Conklin’s debut novel, The House Girl.

The House Girl is a story of deceptions and the people who benefit from them, the passionate seeking of justice until it’s no longer convenient, and deciding if a lie can be told so long it becomes the truth. Though based entirely on created characters, Tara Conklin writes a story that could easily be taken as non-fiction.

Lina Sparrow is the daughter of two artists. She lost her mother at a young age and was raised by her father. He didn’t find success until later in life, so rather than repeat his struggles, Lina chooses to go into corporate law. When she needs to find a lead plaintiff for a slavery reparations case, her search reconnects her to the art world. In the 1850’s Lu Anne Bell took credit for paintings created by her house slave Josephine. Lu Anne’s reputation as an artist has carried into current day, and is now associated with a renowned center for women and art. One of Josephine’s descendants would be the perfect face for Lina’s case, one who would truly demonstrate the loss resulting from the “unjust enrichment” of those who benefitted from slave labor.

When I picked up this book I approached it with a semi-open mind and quickly had my skepticism blown away. Conklin has created a story which is exciting, moving and cynically realistic. Clearly her years as an attorney helped her write a credible story of overworked associates scrambling their way to partnership, the somewhat impersonal life at the office, and always seeing time in 6 minute increments. But her real gift is the way she handles issues around race. The words and actions of Ron Dresser, a high revenue client of Lina’s firm who is the driving  force behind the case, and Garrison Hall, an African American associate teamed with Lina, bring a tension and point of view critical to a telling a story that refuses to take the easy way out. Between Lina’s methodical approach to building the case and Dresser’s strong argument for its importance, readers are given a clear, rational illustration of the long term harm of slavery. Lina’s intense work on  the case is driven first and foremost by ambition. However, after heartbreaking deceit in her own life is revealed, she becomes even more strongly committed to honoring Josephine’s truth.

Conklin’s writing of Josephine’s narrative shines with strength and dignity. Rather than being presented purely as a victim, Josephine’s story is complex and rich. Despite being in an incredibly constrained situation, Josephine still has agency and takes control in the only ways open to her.

This book has much to offer teen readers. Complex questions of race and color, something teens are both accustomed to and more comfortable dealing with, are viewed in a new way. The family issues will also resonate with teens, particularly Lina finally being told the truth about an important issue in her life. Teens are reaching the age where they too will be less protected from reality, and will relate to Lina’s struggle to understand how to deal with what she has learned.

This well crafted story of Lina and Josephine’s journeys could have gone wrong in so many places.  Instead, Conklin’s sensitive, deft handling of complex racial and cultural issues, as well as her creation of a complicated, engaging story make this book destined to be a contender for best of 2013.

* CONKLIN, Tara. The House Girl. 336p. Morrow. Feb. 2013. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780062207395; ebook ISBN 9780062207524.  The House Girl

Adult/High School–Lina Sparrow,  an ambitious young attorney assigned to a slavery reparations case, is tasked with finding the right lead plaintiff to bring action against corporations that benefited from slave labor. Lina’s artist father points out a possibility rooted in a controversy currently brewing in the art world: many art historians believe a house slave named Josephine is really responsible for the beautiful, sensitive portraits of slaves that have been credited to Lu Anne Bell, Josephine’s “missus.” A descendant of Josephine’s could be the person the lawsuit needs to demonstrate the lasting negative effects of past wrongs. Told in sections alternating between Lina’s and Josephine’s stories, Conklin does a brilliant job of crafting the plot, artfully building links between Lina’s case and Josephine’s life. Her description of Lina’s work to build the case examines the long-term harm of slavery in a fresh and analytical way. She uses a critical eye in examining self service disguised as public service and handles complex issues of race deftly. Although there is no fair comparison between the lives of a well-paid attorney and a house slave, Lina’s growth in the face of uncovered deception in her own life in some ways parallels Josephine’s heroic decisions, limited as her options may have been. Teens will be drawn in by the exploration of familial relationships, questionable decisions made in the interest of self protection, and facing the difference between wanting the truth and accepting the truth.–Carla Riemer, Claremont Middle School, CA

Angela Carstensen About Angela Carstensen

Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.