Black History Month Review – “The House Girl” by Tara Conklin

The House Girl is yet another novel that juxtaposes a contemporary story with a linked plotline from the past. It is a tricky balancing act for the author to ensure that both stories are of equal interest.

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Lina Sparrow is a first year litigation associate in a high-powered New York City law firm. Although 24 and attractive, she doesn’t have much of a personal life, since her law firm career demands so much of her time. She still lives with her father, Oscar, who is a well-known artist.

Josephine Bell, seventeen in 1852 and serving as a house slave in Lynnhurst, Virginia, is also an artist. Her master, Missus Lu, sometimes allows her to paint with her in her studio. Now that Missus is feeling poorly, she even asks Josephine to help complete her own paintings, because her hand has become too unsteady.

As the story opens, Lina’s “mentor partner” at Clifton & Harp, Daniel Oliphant III, pulls her into a big new case brought by a wealthy African American client, Ron Dresser. Dresser wants to sue for reparations on behalf of the ancestors of slaves, claiming that trillions of dollars in unpaid wages resulted in unjust enrichment for private companies benefiting from slave labor before the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Lina’s assignment is, per Dan, to “get ourselves a great lead plaintiff:

I want something stirring, a new angle, something compelling. And don’t forget photogenic – these people will be on TV, they’ll be in the papers, they’ll be giving interviews. We need some great people, Lina, some great stories.”

The lawsuit provides an excuse for Lina to read about (and share with us) the history of slave exploitation of labor.

Thanks to her artist dad, Lina discovers the slave Josephine as a potential source for a “colorful” angle, if only she can find a descendant. A series of very unlikely and improbable developments enable her to learn many details that not only advance her case, but also allow her to locate the perfect plaintiff. Everything gets wrapped up in the end, but not neatly, and even somewhat bizarrely.

Discussion: In many ways Josephine’s story is infinitely more interesting than Lina’s, but I don’t have a sense of how historically realistic Josephine’s story may have been, nor how authentic her voice seems. On the other hand, Lina’s account of life in a top-ranked, competitive law firm rings very true. I laughed out loud at Lina’s comparison of law firm time to casino time, and at the way she thought of everything she did in six-minute intervals.

But some of the coincidences and dei ex machina in the story strained credulity. And some of Lina’s actions seemed markedly inconsistent with her character portrayal. Most perplexing to me, however, was the lawsuit that formed the backbone of the story.

I was surprised, maybe astounded even, that the lawsuit for reparations for unjust enrichment was defined as having an end point of 1865. In fact, prior to 1865, slavery was legal. After 1865, on the other hand, slavery continued in the South by surreptitious means, and it is then that companies truly could be culpable for unjust enrichment.

[See, for example, the Pulitzer Prize winning book Slavery By Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon who analyzes why blacks did not rise in American society after emancipation until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Using extensive documentation, he demonstrates that long past the time of the Civil War, slavery was actually still alive and well in the South in all but name, with active support of the state and federal governments.

Here’s how it worked:

"By 1900," Blackmon writes, "the South's judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites." Thousands of random indigent black men were arrested for anything from unemployment, to not being able to prove employment at any given moment, to changing employers without “permission”, or even loud talk. In other words, they were arrested for being young black men. They were sentenced to hard labor, and bought and sold by sheriffs and judges among other opportunists to corporations such as U.S. Steel, Tennessee Coal, railroads, lumber camps, and factories. The prisoners who were sent to mines were chained to their barracks at night, and required to work all day – “subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of other miners – many of whom already had passed years or decades in their own chthonian confinement.” Hundreds died of disease, accidents, or homicide, and in fact, mass burial fields near these old mines can still be located.

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Blackmon charges that the desire to industrialize the South quickly was central to the restrictions put in place to suppress blacks, since these laws allowed for easy arrest and enslavement of workers. He avers:

Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges in arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime.”

But also, and quite importantly, “these bulging slave centers became a primary weapon of suppression of black aspirations.” Millions of blacks lived in a shadow of fear that they or their family members would be taken into this system. It had a profound effect on their behavior and self-esteem.

Blackmon insists that any consideration of the progress of blacks in the United States after the Civil War must acknowledge that "slavery, real slavery, didn't end until 1945." (See the author’s website here for more information and documentation.)]

Thus the parents of today are the children of those who suffered under this egregious system, and so it can be expected that the repercussions continue to inform the expectations and attitudes of those who grew up with the stories and experiences derived from this very recent chapter in their family histories. And, one might argue, it could be expected that a serious reparations case would focus on this phenomenon (never mentioned in the book), for which plaintiffs would have a much better case than when slavery was not prohibited by the Constitution.

Evaluation: The intertwined stories of this book are definitely compelling, even if there are some plausibility issues, especially in the Lina sections of the book.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013

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12 Responses

  1. Hummm. I’ve been on the fence with this one and you didn’t help my decision. :)) I’m still not sure: sounds fascinating, but I wonder how much I’d be bothered by the plausibility issues.

  2. Hrm, I’m intrigued by this book but like Beth above, I’m not sure how I would feel about the plausibility issues!

  3. I’d say there are plausibility issues. The whole premise actually kind of confused me. I guess that Josephine’s story is compelling though.

  4. It sure is tough to weave story lines from the past and present together! I’m interested in the book, but am afraid I’ll end up feeling like I did with Sarah’s Key – loving the historic, but annoyed with the contemporary. Guess I’m still on the fence, too…

  5. I do like intertwining stories like that but think the implausibility might bother me.

  6. I think I would like the historical bits better than the bits about the lawyer, but man, was this case confusing! I mean, I get it, but who would have thought of something like this? It seems highly implausible to me, which might affect my enjoyment of the book, but still, it does sound kind of enveloping. I have this one right here. I might have to give it a 50 page test. Very interesting review today, Jill. Your research into the topic proved rather intriguing.

  7. Great review. I think I’ll enjoy this one. Now I just need to find the time to get to it!

  8. I’m a fence sitter pretty much like the rest of the people here!! :D

  9. My problems with this novel were very similar to yours and I ended up feeling fairly ‘meh’ about the whole thing. Lina’s story just seemed purpose-less and Josephine’s was compelling, but not necessarily firmly planted in reality.

  10. Have you read The New Jim Crow? I’m just starting it – it’s about how the judicial system is still oppressing young black men via drug laws and harsh sentences. It’s been pretty eye-opening for me.

  11. I’ll be reviewing this one soon, but I just wanted to pop in and check out your historical information. I’ll probably link to your discussion about post-Civil War…etc.

  12. Just reading about this makes me mad/sad. I know that I enjoyed your review probably just as much or more than I would the book :)

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