“What is this victory?”
“It’s knowing your worth no matter what the crows tell you. Victory is waiting for us. We have to be bold enough to snatch it.”The Downstairs Girl, Stacey Lee
This week I finished The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee. It’s an absolutely fascinating book. This is historical fiction set in antebellum Atlanta in 1890 and focused on a girl of Chinese descent. While I would assume there were Chinese in the south in the 1800s, I had no idea that they were specifically brought in as field workers after the Civil War or that they were so unseen as to not even be able to have known homes! In the book, the protagonist and her guardian (an older Chinese man) are basically squatting in a secret area under a house where abolitionists were hiding slaves on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War years.
Jo, the heroine of this book, is fascinating. She’s smart and very good at seeing the truth of the world around her – especially the prejudices and the realities of the world, both for her and for those around her. She’s the only Chinese girl in the story, and seems to be the only one most of the characters have ever seen. And yet, she is determined to make a life for herself somewhere.
With no particular plan, Jo starts secretly writing an “Agony Aunt” column for a local newspaper under the pseudonym “Miss Sweetie”. She uses the column to advocate for women’s rights and for the rights of blacks and other non-white members of society. But she does it in delicate, carefully crafted ways that will be less objectionable to the largely white and privileged readers of the paper. It’s a brilliant way of finding a voice for yourself when you aren’t even really acknowledged as existing!
I imagine the suffragists, reform-minded women of the middle class, their starched skirts dragging the pavement. Women with whom I have little in common. Those who dwell in shadows get along by not standing out, not raising their fists to the sky. And even if women are given the vote, Chinese will still get left behind.The Downstairs Girl, Stacey Lee
This was a beautiful book. It’s heartbreaking in some ways, but ultimately hopeful and lovely. It doesn’t pretend to make everything ok or that there are solutions to all of Jo’s problems, but it also doesn’t have a remotely hopeless tone. It’s a book that does a wonderful job of looking at the complexities of prejudice and admitting that there are no easy answers and no easy solutions, no matter how good the intentions of the people involved. It’s really a very timely message.
I would absolutely recommend this book. It’s marvelously written in a distinct and complex first-person voice full of personality and appeal.
- Stacey Lee’s Website
- Stacey Lee on her name
- An interesting discussion guide on The Downstairs Girl and Lee’s other books from Penguin Random House
- A fascinating interview with Lee about writing The Downstairs Girl
- A short Wikipedia article on Chinese labor in the south after the Civil War