“The Downstairs Girl” (Putnam 2019) by Stacey Lee is set in 1890 Atlanta, thirteen years after Reconstruction has ended. Chinese American Jo Kuan, an orphan, lives in a basement cave that was once part of the Underground Railroad system, unbeknownst to its owners, the Bell family. By means of a long forgotten listening tube—a holdover from runaway slave days—Jo listens to the Bells discuss the news as they print their newspaper, The Focus. She acquires a pretty hefty education as well as vocabulary.
Raised by Old Gin who has a way with horses and is employed by a rich white plantation owner, Jo has gained Chinese wisdom in the form of aphorisms—such as “the Chinese believe coincidence is just destiny unfolding.”
Jo is fired from her job as a milliner because the clients are made uneasy by being served by a woman of color. Never mind that she is an extremely talented hat maker and the owner uses all of Jo’s designs. Now she is forced to take a job as the servant to a spoiled young woman, Caroline, daughter of the plantation owner where Old Gin works in the stable. Caroline’s older brother pursues Jo, which of course is nothing but trouble for the beautiful heroine of color. In fact the cover of the book depicts a lovely flower of a girl, who doesn’t convey to me the scrappy girl of the story, but it will have young readers pulling the book off the shelf, which is a good thing.
I love learning history by way of well-researched stories such as this. When black slaves were freed, Chinese people were brought in to work Southern plantations and were barely more than slaves—being poorly paid, and not accorded the rights of a white man. There is big prejudice afoot. Yet, it’s worse for the African Americans in the story.
A rumor has circulated for years of a Chinese man with “rabid eyes” having assaulted a white woman and was run out of town. Jo says, “Chinese men everywhere tried their best not to look rabid.” Jo has a way with words and uses some great similes, such as, “Caroline’s scornful expression has set in her face like a fly in the aspic. Digging it out would only make it worse.”
Jo needs to move freely about town, and if she covers her eyes with a bonnet, she could pass as white. But, “passing as white is a punishable offense whose severity depends on who is duped and to what degree.” And “We have been born with a defect . . . of not being white.”
In her despair, Jo anonymously pens an “agony aunt” columnfor The Focus, under the name of “Miss Sweetie” in order to convey her view of women’s confining fashions, suffragettes (including their exclusion of women of color), and who can sit where on the bus. The clever and controversial column sells subscriptions to the failing Focus. But everyone wants to know the identity of “Miss Sweetie.”
Another newspaper deems Miss Sweetie a rabble-rouser and spreads lies. Jo says, “Where false light falls, a monster grows.”
Along with her research, Jo discovers information about her own past. This is an important read and a page-turner.
Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of the award winning Josephine; Loving vs Virginia; and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue among others. She teaches community classes at Parkland. talesforallages.com