Monday, April 15, 2013

"The House Girl"

Tara Conklin is a writer and lawyer currently living with her family in Seattle, WA. Most recently, she worked as a litigator in the New York and London offices of a corporate law firm but now devotes herself full-time to writing fiction.

She applied the Page 69 Test to The House Girl, her debut novel, and reported the following:
The House Girl tells the interlocked stories of Lina Sparrow, a 24-year old lawyer in a New York corporate law firm in 2004 and Josephine Bell, an 18-year old artist and house slave on a Virginia tobacco farm in 1852. In the opening pages of the novel, we learn that Josephine has decided to run away from her owners and that Lina has been assigned to work on a new lawsuit involving reparations for the descendants of American slaves. Page 69 of The House Girl finds Josephine talking to Dr. Vickers, an old family friend of Josephine’s mistress, a woman she calls Missus Lu. He has just examined Missus Lu, who has been suffering from seizures in recent months, and earlier that morning Josephine discovered a worrying lump on the back of Missus Lu’s neck. Page 69 begins with the doctor’s words:
“Your mistress, I believe she is dying. It seems there is a tumor; that is the source of the protrusion at the back of the neck. The question is really one of time. It is difficult to know how long it will be in these cases. The illness has persisted for so long already, and her mind is not strong. But she may very well surprise us all, find an inner reserve.” He lowered his chin.

“Tell Mr. Bell all that I have told you. I will call again in two days time. If anything should change in her behavior, Mr. Bell must send for me at once. Do you understand?”

“Of course, yes. I understand.”

Dr. Vickers’ eyes were heavy-lidded, unblinking. “I will see myself out. Stay with your Missus.” He turned to make his way down the creaking stairs, the tip of his cane held high, never once hitting a step.

Josephine remained in the hall long after Dr. Vickers had gone, waiting for Missus Lu to summon her. Missus Lu, dying. The doctor’s words settled into Josephine, taking possession of her heart, and she felt her resolve falter. After she was gone, who would care for Missus Lu? Who would hold her down when she shook, comb her hair, fetch what she needed, see that she ate? Mister would never do such things. He had no money for another house girl. Lottie, Therese, Calla, none of them knew all that Josephine knew of the house, of Missus and her ways.

Josephine watched the sun on the floorboards, the shadows cast by the clouds moving like water across the wood, and she thought of an earlier time when she was a girl but not a child. Her bare feet slapping on the stones of the kitchen floor as Missus sang a tune in th parlor. Books taken from the library and ferretted up to her room, and the night hours full of the marvels they contained. There had been a lightness then.... 
This scene is pivotal for Josephine. Although she is fiercely determined to run, fear has started to work its way into her thoughts. Now, with the doctor’s pronouncement that Missus Lu is dying, Josephine’s mixed feelings about her mistress rise up. Can she leave this woman, who has been almost a mother to her, at such a time? As Josephine’s day progresses, she encounters many moments like this – times when she questions her decision to run – but she overcomes them and becomes increasingly committed to escape. I think this scene captures the overall flavor of Josephine Bell’s narrative – the obstacles she faces, the complex emotions she feels for Missus Lu, the sense of foreboding and decay of the world around her. Of course, the contemporary half of the book deals with different characters and has a very different flavor, but we’d have to jump ahead to page 72 for that…
Learn more about the book and author at Tara Conklin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue