‘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.

‘The Blues Don’t Care’ but they sure make a good read

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Paul D. Marks is a multiple award-winning author whose latest novel, “The Blues Don’t Care,” is a striking illustration of the talent that has brought him those awards. It’s the first entry in what promises to be an entertaining and thoughtful series of “Bobby Saxon Novels” — mysteries with not only the requisite twists, turns, surprises, and reveals, but also a penetrating look into our ubiquitous all-too-human flaws — greed, corruption, fear of the “other,” and, especially, racism.

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‘War Stories’ by Gordon Korman is a middle grade novel about war and war games

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Gordon Korman’s books are among the most popular novels for middle grade readers. Kids love them. His “Swindle” series is addictive, and his stand alone novels like “Restart” and “Slacker” are thoughtful and humorous at the same time. “War Stories,” his newest middle grade novel, is thoughtful, but necessarily less humorous; it delves into a much more serious topic — war.

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‘The Blackbird Girls’ by Anne Blankman is a touching story of Chernobyl, of the Holocaust, of love, and of friendship

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“The Blackbird Girls” by Anne Blankman is so much more than its description. It is about two young girls who are rivals, Valentina Kaplan and Oksana Savchenko who end up escaping from the town of Pripyat, their town near the nuclear power plant Chernobyl where their fathers worked. After the explosion, we learn that the government hid news of the explosion for two days, and the day after it happened, residents of that small town strolled about the streets as if it were a normal day in spite of the clouds of blue smoke and the red skies that lit up over Chernobyl. Continue reading

‘The Lost Orphan’ by Stacey Halls is a fascinating trip back to 18th century England and two very different mothers

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What would you do with your newborn baby if you were a poor, uneducated, unwed mother in 1747 London? In “The Lost Orphan” by Stacey Halls, main character Bess is a seller of shrimp. She lives with her father and brother in a tiny two-room apartment, and they struggle to pay the rent and stay warm in the cold London winters. They rise before dawn and, no matter the weather, venture out to sell shrimp in the streets. It’s no life for an infant, and Bess doesn’t have the ability to stay home to raise a child. But she does have the opportunity to leave her baby at a foundling home where they will care for her infant, and when she is ready to reclaim her baby, she will be able to. Continue reading

‘The Light in Hidden Places’ by Sharon Cameron is an inspiring and unforgettable YA novel based on a real story that must be shared

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Sharon Cameron’s genius is clearly demonstrated by the careful and masterful text she has created in “The Light in Hidden Places.” This is a real story of heroism and courage brilliantly re-crafted into a novel that takes readers directly into the heart of the darkest days of WWII Poland.

Stefania Podgórska has grown up on a large farm with her parents and many siblings. When she turns 13, she wants to escape the farm, so she travels to the larger city of Przemyśl, where she finds work with the Daimants, a Jewish family that owns a grocery store. Continue reading

4 middle grade books about compassion and the two-legged underdogs among us (some with wings)

Middle grade novels are not just the next step for children in the reading process. From picture books to adult books, good writers try to imbue their stories with positive messages and important ideas to consider. These four pieces of fiction aimed at readers from fourth grade through middle school accomplish all that and more. Each deserves a special place in school libraries, on classroom bookshelves, and at home. Continue reading

‘The Hollows’ is the sequel to historical fiction mystery ‘The Widows’ by Jess Montgomery

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“The Hollows” by Jess Montgomery follows the characters from her first novel, “The Widows,” as Lily Ross, sheriff after the murder of her husband who was the sheriff, and her friend Marvena Whitcomb deal with the murder of an elderly woman, which has possibly deadly implications for those who are trying to find the truth.

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‘All the Days Past, All the Days to Come’ by Mildred D. Taylor is the culmination of her incredible body of children’s fiction about a family with integrity and grit and the history of racial discrimination in this country

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“All the Days Past, All the Days to Come” is Mildred D. Taylor’s tenth book about the Logan family of Mississippi and their struggle from the 1930s on trying to protect their land and their family from the bigotry, prejudice and violence that they endured living in the Deep South. Readers who know Taylor’s body of work will be thrilled to read about what happens to the family, especially Cassie, as they grow up. New readers will get the pleasure of learning about life in the Logan family. The Logan family, really Taylor’s family, consists of a special group of people. They are raised to be people of integrity with an ingrained sense of their self-worth. Yet they are also taught to be smart in how they behave in their home in the South during times when a simple statement or wrong move could invite harsh retaliation from whites.

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