As this novel opens, we meet Josephine, the title character, an enslaved teenager who works for Lu Anne Bell, a sickly woman who fancies herself an artist. Among Josephine's many jobs is "fixing" Lu Anne's paintings. Josephine has tried to run away previously, but she was about to give birth to a child, the product of serial rape by her "master," Lu Anne's husband. Thus, she was forced to return to the Bell plantation to give birth to a child born dead. Four years later, on the day in 1852 when we meet her, she is planning to run again.
The narration then shifts to Lina Sparrow, a young associate at a Manhattan law firm circa 2004. She is finishing up a brief, only to have it dropped in the trash by her supervising partner, who announces that the case has been settled. He tells her that he has an exciting new case for her, a lawsuit seeking reparations for slavery. Lina's job is to find an appealing lead plaintiff. By coincidence (there are many in this book), Lina's father, a noted artist, takes her to an exhibit of the work of Lu Anne Bell, which a leading art critic has recently announced were really painted by her slave Josephine. Lina decides that Josephine's descendants would be good plaintiffs and begins to research the family. Meanwhile, her father is about to mount a show of new work featuring paintings of Lina's mother, who died when she was 4.
The perspective continues to shift between Josephine and Lina, with Lina's sections including (phony) historical documents she uncovers as she delves into Josephine's life. These documents include letters from the daughter of a conductor on the Underground Railroad and a narrative written by a slave doctor (a physician who patched up captured runaways so they could be resold). The book's ending brings new information and a new direction for Lina and tragedy for Josephine.
The House Girl is jam-packed with interesting topics and issues--slavery, the Underground Railroad, what happened to runaways who were captured, reparations, art and how the authorship of works can be established, the strictures of being a wife and mother, coming of age (in a rather delayed fashion) . . . and on and on. If Conklin had focused more narrowly--perhaps eliminating Lina's character altogether and using a variety of perspectives to tell Josephine's story--the book might have been more effective. As it is, I found the narrative too scattered, the plot rife with too many coincidences, and Lina's story ridiculous.
It is not much that I need for happiness. . . . I will strive in my own way for the abolitionist cause. I will assist others as I can on the Railroad, and this is really all that I ask. To be a good wife to Jack, to work alongside him, to find comfort where I may, to give comfort to others as I am able. Is it too much to wish for such a life? Is it too little?