Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Stacey Lee is one of my favorite authors because she imagines vibrant characters to recreate the forgotten chapters of American history. Her latest young adult novel, The Downstairs Girl tells the bittersweet story of an elderly Chinese immigrant and his adopted daughter in 1890s Atlanta. Although Old Jin and 17-year-old Jo Kuan are fictional characters, their historical context is true to life in the segregated South.

As the Author's Note explains, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese immigration to the USA until 1943. Immigrant laborers, who had been shipped in from China to replace the freed slaves, were thus permanently separated from their families back home. Work conditions were terrible, and those who ran away to the cities faced further isolation. Where should a person who is neither black nor white sit on a segregated trolley car, and what landlord would rent to them?

Unable to find affordable housing, Old Jin and 17-year-old Jo squat in a secret basement that used to be part of the Underground Railway. By good fortune, the oblivious Caucasian family that lives above them runs a liberal newspaper. Jo educates herself in English by eavesdropping on their conversations. When Jo learns that their newspaper might fold, she starts writing an anonymous agony aunt column to increase circulation. Jo's job as a lady's maid is helpful for etiquette tips, but she can't resist writing about hot topics like racism and women's rights. Her column is as witty as it is controversial. All of Atlanta wants to know who "Miss Sweetie" is, but Jo knows she must hide her identity or risk expulsion from the only home she knows. Although legal residents, Chinese Americans were not citizens.

With a bit of romance, snippets of Chinese culture, and a horse race, this engaging story takes the reader for a fun ride. Jo is a marvelous, kind-hearted but frank character who breathes life into history. This recently published novel has a lovely sense of place and time, enhanced by whimsical imagery:
"The cold seems to have crystallized into a freezing dust. It's as if the winter dragon were salting the earth liberally for its supper. Lucky Yip told me that season dragons can be jealous, producing weather extremes to prevent the next season's dragon from moving in."
I highly recommend The Downstairs Girl to all readers ages twelve and up. Although there are some sexual references in the story, the content is very tame for young adult fiction. The fascinating history and strong writing would crossover well to an adult audience too. This gorgeous book, with its rare cover image of a Chinese American girl in 19th century period dress, would make an excellent gift. I also enjoyed Lee's two other historical novels for teens: Under a Painted Sky and Outrun the Moon. I hope she writes more.

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@Barrie Summy

5 comments:

Lucy said...

Most of the books I've read lately have been fictionalized stories based on fact and it sounds like this could fall in that category as well. It sounds like a very interesting story. Great review. Thanks for sharing!

Lucy said...

Oh, and I love the cover!

Powell River Books said...

Chinese and Japanese workers were brought into the Powell River area to work in the forest industry. When WWII came, there was a Japanese internment camps in the area. When the lake we live on was low, I found artifacts including pottery. It was a difficult time for immigrants who didn't have any status. - Margy

Barrie said...

Oh, this sounds good! I find I'm reading more historicals. This would make a good Christmas present for Claire, I think. Thank you for reviewing!

Phyllis Wheeler said...

Now I do want to read this! You wrote a good review!