Title: The Downstairs Girl
Author: Stacey Lee
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Availability: On shelves now
Review copy: Checked out from library
Summary: Atlanta, 1890: By day, seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta. But by night, Jo moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady, “Dear Miss Sweetie.” When her column becomes wildly popular, she uses the power of the pen to address some of society’s ills, but she’s not prepared for the backlash that follows when her column challenges fixed ideas about race and gender.
While her opponents clamor to uncover the secret identity of Miss Sweetie, a mysterious letter sets Jo off on a search for her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby. But when her efforts put her in the crosshairs of Atlanta’s most notorious criminal, Jo must decide whether she, a girl used to living in the shadows, is ready to step into the light. With prose that is witty, insightful, and at times heartbreaking, Stacey Lee masterfully crafts an extraordinary social drama set in the New South.
Review: First off, the cover of this book is truly amazing. Jo is wearing a beautifully decorated hat with the brim slightly tilted. She’s looking to the side and seems slightly apprehensive. She’s beautiful and the whole picture is soft and romantic. I could stare at it for ages.
Enough of the cover love though. The story caught me from the beginning. Jo is an enterprising and persistent young lady in a difficult situation. Being Chinese in Georgia in the 1800s came with unique challenges. Jo generally tries to keep her head down and do her work.
As Miss Sweetie, Jo offers advice, but she’s also able to finally use her voice to share about the injustices she sees every day and there are plenty of them. She addresses segregation on the trolley, women on bicycles and getting the vote among other things.
One topic that comes up multiple times is suffrage. Women are organizing. This is huge issue, but within the groups, there is disagreement about precisely who should be allowed the vote which definitely complicates the situation. Stacey Lee was able to really get at this history of the White feminist movement. People like to applaud the suffragettes, but many of them were clearly not seeking the vote for all women and that type of thinking is still seen in the present.
Along with activism, Jo is also working to solve the mystery of her past. She knows she was given up by her parents, but has no idea who they are. Her adopted father, Old Gin, is being secretive and Jo’s curiosity and concern for Old Gin lead her to some dangerous places.
If this were all that happened in the novel, this would still be an interesting story, but there is more. There is also a possible romance and plenty of amusing quips and happenings along with the intrigue and danger.
Recommendation: Get it soon. This is a thoroughly entertaining story with heart. It allows us to look into the complicated past of the U.S. especially with regard to race and feminism. The Downstairs Girl is a beautiful book and will be difficult to put down once you begin.
Interview with Stacey Lee