‘The Downstairs Girl’ by Stacey Lee is the kind of historical fiction that teachers love because it opens eyes and hearts

‘The Downstairs Girl” by Stacey Lee is not what I expected. I was looking forward to an historical fiction novel about class differences, but I wasn’t expecting a book so riveting that I would stay up all night to finish it. With tears in my eyes. 

There is so much that is magnificent about Lee’s writing that I’m almost at a loss regarding where to begin: the historical information that is so important and not something we are taught in school? The intertwining of racism from almost 150 years ago that is depicted so movingly — and so heartbreakingly? The story of a girl searching for her roots, and searching for a place in the world where she can use her talents?

When Jo Kuan loses her job at the millinery shop, a job in which she excelled, she can’t find work. In Atlanta twenty-five years after the Civil War, no one wants help that looks different from a red-blooded Southerner. Kuan’s Chinese ancestry means that she fits in with neither the whites nor the “colored” categories. She and Old Gip, her guardian since she was abandoned as an infant, are somewhere in between.

We learn that Old Gip has worked on the estate of the wealthy, blue-blooded Payne family since he came to America. Jo started working there also as a child, beginning in the stables and working her way up to housemaid, when suddenly one day, Mrs. Payne ordered her out of the house. For no reason. But now Old Gip says that she can go back to the Payne house as a day maid to Caroline, the Payne’s spoiled daughter, who is back from finishing school. Jo and Caroline have a tortured past, and while they grew up together, Caroline was cruel to Jo in countless ways. Caroline does not seem to have changed even after all these years. We follow the relationship between Jo and Caroline and Mrs. Payne as the relationships develop and long-kept secrets come to light.

We also learn about Old Gip and Jo’s living situation. It’s against the law for Chinese to own land or rent, but Old Gip had learned about a hidden basement that had been created by abolitionists, complete with hidden entrances and situated  under the house of the Bell family, owners of one of the Atlanta newspapers, the Focus. While Old Gip has taught Jo mathematics and other subjects, she learned about English through a speaking tube that led to the printing press part of the Bell home. Jo would pull out the sound-dampening wool and listen as the family discussed events, language, words, and stories. Jo feels she knows them all, especially their son Nathan, who is just two years older than she. But they have no idea that others live hidden below them.

When the Bells’ paper is in danger because of flagging subscriptions, they bemoan that the other Atlanta paper has an advice column that draws subscribers. They brainstorm about how they might create a similar attention-grabber. That sets off a spark in Jo’s mind. One of the reasons that she was fired from her job at the hat store was because of her opinions. She was a “saucebox,” as they termed outspoken women back then. Perhaps she could — anonymously, of course — be their advice giver, an agony aunt as it were. She delivers a few columns into their mailbox and is thrilled when they use her writing. At the same time, Jo realizes that if she were ever discovered, she could end up in jail because impersonating a white person is a crime.

Aside from the history lessons, the page-turning plot, and the fabulous depiction of the characters, Lee consistently demonstrates her ability to turn a phrase, to imbue her writing with lovely metaphors, and to make it all seem natural — because the first person narrator is a writer, a person of high intellect, and a person who is extremely perspicacious. In a different narrator, we might not find the narration believable, but because of Jo and her quick understanding, we don’t question it. And some of the writing is so delightful, we must smile and enjoy it.

“My, you are assiduous.”
I frown with the effort of remembering what that particular word means.
Assiduous meaning ‘hardworking.'”
“Yes, I know, young man,” I snap, wondering how I got caught in the same trap twice. “I’ve just never been fond of words that are led by an ass.”
His face tightens, as if with the effort of trying to hold something back. “Ah. Then I shall assay not to assault your ears.”

Throughout the book, the details and the description are magnificent. The writing is engaging, and the plot is intricately woven together with twists that are certainly unexpected but implied effectively with precise foreshadowing. Turning the pages and coming across a lovely metaphor is just one reason that we can’t stop reading, yet we don’t want the beautiful story to end. I smiled as I read and then reread, “Saturday arrives wearing a cloud shawl over her damp shoulders.”

While “The Downstairs Girl” is published as a young adult novel, it boasts enough depth and maturity that readers of all ages will enjoy it. It’s also a fabulous choice for a book club. I can’t wait to see what Stacey Lee writes next.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.