Friday, May 16, 2014

Echoes of the Past

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of interviewing Tara Conklin for New Books in Historical Fiction. Her book, The House Girl, appeared last year. I learned about it, as I hear about many interesting books, from National Public Radio. I think it was the Sunday Morning Edition, but I no longer feel certain of that. Whatever the show, I knew at once that this was a book I wanted to read and an author I would love to interview. And since the paperback version came out a few months ago, this seemed like the perfect time.

The book was everything I had imagined and more: beautifully written, it moves seamlessly back and forth between past and present, contrasting the lives of two young women: Lina, a 24-year-old lawyer in 2004 New York; and Josephine, a 17-year-old slave experiencing what she hopes will be her last day on a Virginia tobacco plantation in 1852. Although Josephine works in the house, not under the even harsher conditions that prevail in the tobacco fields, she suffers plenty of indignities, small and large, against which she has no defense except to immerse herself, when possible, in the paintings that her mistress permits her to make. And it is those paintings that eventually bring Josephine to Lina’s attention, raising the possibility of a well-deserved if long-overdue vindication of an old wrong.  

The rest of this post comes from the New Books in Historical Fiction interview page:

Lina Sparrow can’t believe her luck when the boss at her fancy New York law firm offers her a once-in-a-lifetime chance: find a suitable plaintiff for a class-action suit to be lodged against the U.S. government and fifty rich corporations that profited from slave labor before the Civil War. The wealthy technocrat intent on pushing this suit for reparations claims he has a deal that will protect Lina’s law firm from going head to head against the government, and the case seems guaranteed to generate lots of publicity and a lovely bag of cash for the law firm. But the pressure is on: Lina has only a few weeks to find the right person and convince him or her to play along.

Luck again appears to favor her when a friend of her artist father alerts her to a recent controversy surrounding the paintings of Luanne Bell, a plantation lady from the 1850s whose art portrays her slave laborers with extraordinary complexity and compassion. Are the paintings Luanne’s, or the work of her house girl Josephine? And if Lina can prove that Luanne has received credit for Josephine’s work for the last century and a half, can she also find a descendant who can serve as living evidence of the devastating damage inflicted by slavery?

The House Girl moves deftly back and forth between past and present as Lina works to trace the history of one young girl enslaved on a Virginia tobacco plantation while fending off challenges posed by her coworkers, the man who may be Josephine’s descendant, and even her own past. Tara Conklin’s debut novel hit the bestseller lists within weeks of its release. You’ll have no trouble figuring out why.

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