The Civil War: “The House Girl,” another look at slavery

A history detective decodes the past in this novel. Photo: House slaves waiting to be sold in Virginia, 1851 Artist unknown

VIENNA, Va., March 4, 2013 —Tara Conklin’s seminal book, “The House Girl – a Novel,” makes an exhaustive jump from pre-Civil War Virginia in 1852 to a legal exercise in New York City that could be straight out of contemporary headlines. The writer scores a perfect ten on the outcome.

Writing in an antiphonal style, with one of the two main characters pictured in each chapter sequentially, she tells the dual stories of Lina Sparrow, young, ladder-climbing attorney with a prestigious New York law firm, and Josephine, former “house girl” for the Bell family near Lynnhurst, Va.  Factored into this duo are Oscar, Lina’s fairly estranged artist father, and Lu Ann Bell herself, into whose service and talents Josephine is submerged, making the story beg to be told.

Tara Conklin, the author

In the novel we learn that Lu Ann Bell’s pictures are taking the art world by storm, much to the delight of the Stanmore Foundation in Charlotte County, Va., which now owns them, until a well-known art critic examines them carefully and realizes that not all were drawn by the same artist.

Meanwhile, Josephine has finally run away from the abusive slave situation of her owner, and is hiding out, some of the art work she learned from Lu Ann carefully tucked away in her pocket or bag.

At the same time, a wealthy mixed-race patron has come to the law firm with deep pockets and a desire to file a lawsuit to obtain reparations for all of those descended from slaves, at long last, whether they be four-greats grandchildren or what.

This sets up the novel’s sub-plot where Lina and her mentor/co-counsel Dan Oliphant must find a way to obtain a “classic plaintiff” who is actually descended from slaves, to be the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Lina is ultimately able to connect the dots in the historic cast of characters, including her own father, and Jasper Battle, a young mulatto artist she has met, who might fill the bill, if enough generations can be connected, and in whom she sees a kindred spirit.

Her struggle through the papers and ledgers of long deceased slave owners to trace the birth and parentage of Jasper back to the slave era, are an exercise both in genealogical pursuits and the pitfalls that the legal world can face in such a pursuit.

House slaves with family

Tara Conklin is also an attorney, and it shows as she delves into the purported “proofs,” at the same time realizing the legal ramifications of the search and the hurdles to be leaped. 

Still her depth of feeling in and for these meaty characters, which also tie into missing pieces in her own family background, make for fascinating reading. It becomes a book you simply cannot put down!

“The House Girl” is an interesting adventure into the cruel world of the slave hunters and the “patrollers,” as they were called, as well as into the myriad workings of the Underground Railroad, and at times, the terrible price that those who worked actively to assist the slaves escape had to pay personally.

Conklin has consulted dozens of records around Virginia, as well as histories that have been published, the old slave stories that the WPA has worked on for years, in an effort to put truth and veracity into the many narratives she has found.

An interesting work of fiction, a fascinating work of character development, and a story that just possibly could be true, the book is a wonderful addition to the pantheon of Civil War related writing, one which shows as much heart as it does well developed factual situations. 

One can only hope that the reading public is as desirous of adopting this book as quickly as they have worked in recent months to inflating semi-porn disguised as fiction to a place of prominence.

Where “The Help” was a fairly light-hearted attempt to bridge the gap of color, “The House Girl” brings you  totally into the dwelling place, and you emerge the better for reading it.    

Publisher: William Morrow (February 12, 2013 ) ISBN-10: 0062207393   ISBN-13: 978-0062207395

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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