Book Review: 'The Downstairs Girl' by Stacey Lee

Jo Kuan, the protagonist and titular Downstairs Girl, is a Chinese American teenager living in Atlanta, Georgia just after the end of the U.S. Civil War.

Book Review: 'The Downstairs Girl' by Stacey Lee
Featured image from the website of the author.

Jo Kuan, the protagonist and titular Downstairs Girl, is a Chinese American teenager living in Atlanta, Georgia just after the end of the U.S. Civil War.

She and her guardian, Old Gin, live secretly in an hidden basement beneath a house occupied by a white family.

Jo and Old Gin are part of the wave of Chinese immigrants recruited to work in the South in the late 19th century.

As Jo enters her seventeenth year, we see her encounter the different ways that race and gender discrimination restrict her life. She is laid off from a job designing hats for Atlanta's society women after she upstages her boss, and must then take a job as a lady's maid to a spoiled young girl who is often needlessly cruel.

Jo's secret life, existing on the periphery of mainstream society is used by the author to illustrate a period of time and group of people that have been largely ignored then forgotten by modern America.

When I was growing up in the American South in the 1980s, we spent weeks learning about the U.S. Civil War - when it started, the major battles, how it ended. But then there were maybe a scant few paragraphs about Reconstruction. The period of time between 1866 and 1877 (more than twice as long as the war itself) when Black citizens were finally emancipated and obtained citizenship and civil rights.

What I remember most about what we were taught about Reconstruction was that it failed. Southern whites resented Black people being allowed to vote, go to school and hold jobs (well, actually being paid for their labor - they were always employed). Then, when the federal government allowed the states to be readmitted to the union and ended martial law, the white majority retaliated by passing Black Codes that severely restricted the civil rights of Black Americans. At the same time, para-military groups like the Ku Klux Klan harassed and murdered Black people that they perceived to be violating the tenets of white supremacy.

As it's popularly conceived by many white Americans, the history of race relations goes like this: War brought about the end of slavery, then we had segregation and Jim Crow and the Klan, then the Civil Rights movement, then ... now.

Very few books examine that time period of 11 years, when schools were established, and black people voted and elected other black people to local and state offices all across the South. When people from all over the world came to make their homes in the United States, in cities and towns, areas large and small.

When I read books about Reconstruction, or set during that time, I'm struck with the idea that it could have turned out differently, that the violence of the Jim Crow era was not inevitable.

Throughout the book, Lee highlights the emerging backlash against the new rights that people of color have obtained. At the beginning, all citizens share space on the streetcar without much fanfare.

Gradually, new laws are passed that require segregation on the seats in the streetcar and in the rest of society. Where do Gin and Jo 'fit' in the newly strict hierarchy?

Just after reading The Downstairs Girl, I read Rebecca Burns' Rage in the Gate City: The Story of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot. In her non-fiction work, Burns painstakingly details the competing power struggles and the incentives that corporate interests, the news media of the time, and politicians had to create a divided, fractious and fearful population instead of a united one.

I will write a separate review of Burns' book. They both deserve to be individually highlighted. But they also complement each other in that they look at the same place and time from different angles and with a different approach.

For all the secrets Jo lives with - she also has a secret job as an advice columnist in addition to her secret home - it is a secret about her that is the heart of The Downstairs Girl.

In addition to showing what life was like for immigrants like Jo at a time like this, Lee's storytelling also shows how the ideology of racism and white supremacy damages and limits everyone - even the people deemed to be top of the hierarchy.

I won't spoil the ending here.

But The Downstairs Girl is both historical fiction and a fast-paced mystery novel that is well worth anyone's time.