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7 September 2019 THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL by Stacey Lee, Putnam, August 2019, 384p., ISBN: 978-1-5247-4095-5


“There is a blue one who can’t accept the green one

For living with a fat one trying to be a skinny one”

-- Sly Stone (1968)


“Between 1890 and 1910, ten of the eleven former Confederate states, starting with Mississippi, passed new constitutions or amendments that effectively disenfranchised most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites through a combination of poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, and residency and recordkeeping requirements.”

--from the Wikipedia article, “Jim Crow Laws”


“‘It’s not right,’ I whisper once we have reached the warm shadows of our basement. ‘The streetcars are for everyone.’ I set about switching on our lamps while Old Gin sets the water to boil.

‘There have always been lines drawn. Lines will just get darker’

‘When will it be enough?’

Old Gin glances at me holding my elbows, the kerosene lamp I’ve just lit moving in the shadows. ‘In China, there are many social orders as well.’

‘China is not a democracy.’

He alights on his milking stool and unties his laces. ‘Sometimes, things must get harder before they can change.’

‘But why?’

‘Pain drives progress, hm? After removing his shoes, he takes our broom and sweeps the dirt we’ve tracked in. ‘When I was a boy, there was a drought in my village that lasted three years. Food was scarce for everyone. I remember seeing a dog wandering the streets, so hungry, he bit into his own leg. It was only after he drew blood that he let go.’ He works the dirt into a neat pile. ‘Sometimes, we are so driven by our own needs, we do things that hurt ourselves. But eventually, the dog must let go.’

If there aren’t enough rows, the colored will have to give away, just as on the sidewalks. And where are Old Gin and I supposed to sit? Somewhere in the middle once again. Old Gin has always steered us away from trouble.”


Jo Kwan is a bright seventeen-year-old Chinese-American working girl in 1890 Atlanta, Georgia. She has been raised by Old Gin, a kind and philosophic Chinese immigrant who has a way with horses. They live in a concealed basement that was once part of the Underground Railroad. The basement is situated below what is now the printing shop of a struggling newspaper, The Focus. The newspaper’s owners, the Bells, don’t know about the basement or its occupants. A long-forgotten communicating tube, its upper-end hidden behind a vent in the print shop, provides Jo the opportunity to eavesdrop on conversations in the shop. It has served as part of her education.


Jo has her own fair share of strong opinions, so when she overhears through the communicating tube that The Focus needs an advice columnist to keep up with the competition, she begins writing columns under the name Miss Sweetie and submitting them anonymously. The Focus begins publishing them and her columns become the talk of the town.


At this time, the South, freed of the constraints of Reconstruction, was working overtime to restore a semblance of the Black Codes that had previously kept black Americans in their place. This racist trend would lead to the infamous 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v Ferguson that legalized discrimination for 58 years, until the Court’s Brown v Board of Education reversal.


As we read here, there was virtually a caste system. White men had the power. Black men were given the vote through the Fifteenth Amendment, but were being effectively disenfranchised by discriminatory statutes. White women were fighting for suffrage, but far too many of them were determined to keep women of color from enjoying the same rights. Meanwhile, the Chinese are demonized and here under the shadow of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As Jo muses, “And even if women are given the vote, Chinese will still get left behind.”


This was such a satisfying read. Rich in American history, and featuring a heroic young female protagonist, THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL is memorable for its wealth of details about life in 1890s Atlanta; for the distinctive characters from varying racial and class groups whom we get to know; and for the well-crafted unraveling of the mystery of Jo’s origins. 


Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Pickshttp://richiespicks.pbworks.com





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