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The Nature of Harm

posted by: March 15, 2013 - 8:03am

The House GirlLawyer Lina Sparrow instantly knew she was staring at a drawing that transcended time. The young African American man at its center stood in a Virginia field with his hands at his side, waiting. More than 150 years may have passed, but Lina knew that the charcoal put to paper that day said as much about the subject as it did about the artist who created it. In Tara Conklin's shifting, stirring debut, The House Girl, two worlds coalesce, as the winds of past sins expose the fight for freedom and family identity that reach from present day deep into America's past.


In the plush law offices of Manhattan’s prestigious Clifton & Harp, first year litigation associate, Lina Sparrow, has just been handed the class action case of a lifetime involving historic reparations for slavery.  In locating a slave's descendant to act as lead plaintiff, she stumbles upon the story of artist Lu Anne Bell and her house girl, Josephine, who sometimes painted alongside her mistress. Josephine was seventeen in 1852 when she escaped from the failing Bell tobacco plantation. Now Mrs. Bell’s paintings are highly regarded for their sensitive portrayal of her husband's slaves, but recent speculation has questioned their authenticity. Lina, herself the daughter of artists, delves deeper into the searing plight of Josephine. In doing so, she begins to question her personal life and her own sense of place.


Conklin, a lawyer by training, exploits the double narrative as the means to weave together a historic time period with the legal perspective of twenty-first century restitution. As the prose expands, uncovered correspondences lay bare the horror of slavery. Readers of The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini  will enjoy this moving connection to the troubled past.


Revised: March 15, 2013