The House Girl by Tara Conklin (William Morrow, February 2013)
The assignment given to a first-year associate at a high-powered Manhattan law firm leads a young woman into a labyrinth of art, history and humanity, in the search for a woman whose fate has wide-reaching effects and makes Lina Sparrow question her own life and the true meaning of justice. When Lina Sparrow is tasked with finding a plaintiff for a class-action lawsuit worth an astronomical amount in reparations for the families of American slaves, her father, artist Oscar Sparrow points her in the direction of Lu Anne Bell, a pre-Civil war artist known for her portrayals of plantation slaves. The current thinking is that Lu Anne was not the artist of this collection of portraits, but her house slave Josephine. Lina decides to research Josephine, as one of her defendants would be the perfect public face for her firm’s suit. As Lina tries to trace Josephine’s family, she loses the trail shortly after Lu Anne’s death in 1852; Lina searches through papers, letters and records hoping to find something, but surprised to find things that bring to the surface Lina’s own mother’s death twenty years before. The story alternates between Josephine’s story in antebellum Virginia, and Lina’s search for answers, not only for her job but herself. Told with brutal honesty and without apology, The House Girl reminds readers that there are some secrets that are better off not kept. The stories of two women, living over a century apart parallel each other in ways that no one could guess. Art and history collide, making each of us examine the truths we tell each other and ourselves.