My reading always seems to slow down between May and July, and this year is no exception. I only read one book in June, and actually think I finished it on the 2nd. This brings my annual total to 14, just over halfway to my goal of 25.
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The House Girl by Tara Conklin
This story covers the lives of two women from two different times; Josephine, a slave in Virginia in 1852, and Lina, an up-and-coming lawyer in modern day New York City. As their stories progress throughout the book, their lives become intertwined in interesting ways, and through interesting people.
In 1852, Josephine is a young woman (17) who has been the house slave for a childless couple and owners of the failing Bell Creek Plantation in rural Virginia since she was a child. The wife, Lu Anne Bell, brought Josephine into the house as her personal slave and raises her somewhat as her own child, teaching her to read and allowing her to paint with her. When we are introduced to her, Lu Anne is of failing health and mind. Josephine is torn between staying to take care of this woman who showed her some kindness and running away to attempt escape for her freedom in the North.
Jumping to present day— Lina is following her dreams of becoming a lawyer and working for one of the top rated firms in Manhattan. She lives with her father, a well known artist, and is struggling with her father’s newest collection and show: works of her mother, who passed away when she was four. As Lina’s firm takes on a case seeking reparations for slavery, her two worlds are intertwined when a nearby gallery puts on a show of famed Lu Anne Bell’s paintings, along with a scandal suggesting that Lu Anne wasn’t the painter at all. Lina dives headfirst into both worlds, attempting to untangle the truths and seeking to discover who Josephine was, and ultimately what happened to her.
And here’s where my review makes a turn. I think I would give this story so far a wonderful rating, based on the creativity of the story and how wonderfully she has woven all of these characters’ lives together, but the setting of Josephine’s life hit a little close to home for me. So close in fact that I grew up in ‘Charlotte County, Virginia’ where the Bell Creek Plantation is supposedly located.
Charlotte County in this story is “surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains,” with the main town of this story being Lynnhurst. There is also a supposed nearby town of Randolph and “Stanton.” Josephine can also hear the river from the porch of the house. In the real Charlotte County, you may in fact be able to hear the Staunton River from your porch if you live just on the edge of the county and there is an old plantation called “Staunton Hill.” There is a nearby community named Randolph, too. But the real Charlotte County cannot be reached after just a 45 minute drive from Richmond, as stated in the book, (more like two hours,) and the closest mountains are over 90 minutes to the west…the actual Blue Ridge is more like two hours away.
This leads me to believe that the author isn’t talking about a fictional Lynnhurst in the actual Charlotte County at all, but maybe Lyndhurst in Augusta County, two hours north. The real Lyndhurst is about 30 miles west of Charlottesville, so maybe the author saw that and just named this place Charlotte County? Lyndhurst is surrounded by the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the small city of Staunton is nearby, at only 20 miles to the west (though on the other side of the rather large incline and decline of Afton Mountain, which would be quite a trek on a horse in those days.) I can only assume this is the correct location for this story’s setting, but I wish the name of Charlotte County hadn’t been used so frequently as she described the terribly racist town and the horrible things that happened there.
Another thing that made me laugh was her mention of Lina hurriedly cutting across “five lanes of traffic” to make an illegal turnaround in the median to head back to Lynnhurst. The closest highway to the actual Charlotte County is only two lanes each way and you could probably lay down spread eagle in the center of it for a solid ten minutes without fearing you’d be run over. If she is in fact talking about the Charlottesville area, there’s enough traffic that I wouldn’t play Frogger in it, but it’s still only two lanes each way. I think the closest “five lane highway” would be nearing the beltway in Washington DC or the area where 64 and 664 split near the Hampton Roads Tunnel going into Norfolk…both at least two hours away. Not even I-95 near Richmond contains such a wide swath of lanes at any point, so this is just another reminder that the author has probably never set foot here, or at least hasn’t driven here.
Sometimes it’s just hard for me to get over inaccuracies like this, especially when your own hometown is being used in such a way. I have a huge respect for authors who do their research, and I can’t believe she couldn’t have just Googled these simple things before moving ahead with them in her story. The rest of this story is a hit if you can ignore these distracting details, but as a Virginia native, that wasn’t possible for me.
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What did you read in June? Anything you’d recommend?