The Downstairs Girl
There is a history to most countries that the countrymen shouldn't be proud of. Whether that is taking Maori people's land in New Zealand or slavery in the US (my two countries of citizenship). We should never take pride in these elements of our history—the ones that caused people to hurt—but we should remember them so that they never happen again.
Lee does an astounding job of that in The Downstairs Girl. She paints a picture of both the mistreatment of Blacks and Chinese and a young Chinese-American girl's struggle to fit in. Her use of real history is amazing. The stage is set with bicycles, woman's suffrage, and civil rights both looming on the horizon and beginning at the moment. It's a black and white world and Jo doesn't know where she fits. Lee reminds readers of another race that faced discrimination after the emancipation of slaves: Chinese who were shipped over to take the work of Blacks. Jo's story reveals the inability to own or rent land for anyone Chinese and this setting gives way to the story of a strong female protagonist willing to break the chains her society has placed on her.
Jo is a hatmaker. She wishes someday when things are better to own her own hat store and today is the day she asks for a raise. With better money, she can pay for her father-figure's medicine and help them make a better life for themselves where they live in the basement of a newspaper print-shop (unbeknownst to the owners). Unfortunately, her manager doesn't have the same plan in mind. She fires Jo and the young woman is forced back into the arms of her old mistress working as a maid.
Throughout the book, Jo must overcome obstacle after obstacle with her friends (who are mostly Black). She begins to write a column for the newspaper (anonymously) which highlights the struggles of the time. She and her friend ride a bike (a new creation in her period). They fight for justice (and votes) for women in the suffrage movement and when the white women of Atlanta don't let them fight how they want, they create their own suffrage movement.
The characters Lee fashions are loveable at every turn. You understand the motives of the antagonists. You want to be best friends with Jo and her crew. You have pride for the things Jo accomplishes and for every step that is made towards equality.
But Lee has more in store for you than a few loveable characters. She takes you on a journey that will have your head spinning (and your eyes watering) by the end. There were so many twists and turns throughout this novel that I didn't see coming. It wasn't a thriller, mystery, or fantasy. It wasn't packed with action or suspense. Yet I was sucked into every page. I never knew what would happen next and that was amazing. Yet, there was never a sense of whiplash like the plot twist didn't belong in the book. Rather, I felt as though the author had carefully planned each turn so that it came out of nowhere but once you looked back you wondered "how come I didn't see it?"
Best of all (and this is a slight SPOILER if you want to avert your eyes), there was a lovely ending for the characters of the book. The endings were realistic but satisfying and, in a time when many suffered such unhappy endings, this is a brilliant way to end the book. The endings say, "This terrible stuff happened. Some of it still happens on some level. But there is hope."
I highly suggest reading this novel no matter what kind of books you like to read. It is the kind of book that everyone should be reading. It will most appeal to you, however, if you like a good historical fiction with powerful female characters taking charge.
A few random historical facts about the novel: The novel is set sometime in the late 1800s (Lee does mention an exact year at the end of her book). The civil rights movement wasn't until the 1960s but there were people fighting for their rights well before then. Like the rights taken away by the Jim Crow laws (1870s-1900s). The Streetcar Segregation act (1891), in particular, is mentioned in the book though Lee says it was actually passed after the year she was writing in. It wasn't actually enacted until later. Even after the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1996, people were still confused about where to sit on the bus. I cannot even imagine the confusion being neither Black nor White. The more popular newspaper (over the one Jo writes for in the book) was called the Atlanta Constitution and I actually did find a newspaper by that name in that time period! There was no Focus newspaper that I could find. The safety bicycle (pictured below) became popular starting in the late 1880s and became a symbol of the suffragist movement since women could now ride the bikes. Unfortunately, white women often excluded other races from their fight for votes. The vote for women didn't come until 1920.
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