THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL, by Stacey Lee G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, Aug. 13, 2019, Hardcover, $17.99 (young adult)
As a reviewer, I receive lots of books from publishers. I don’t always get ones I’m interested in so I have a list of books to purchase. The Downstairs Girl, by Stacey Lee, is one such book. And I can honestly say I’m glad I bought it.
At the center of The Downstairs Girl is 17-year-old Jo Kuan. Jo works as a lady’s made for the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta. It’s a decent job, but Jo feels trapped. In the late-1800s South, you are either black or white.
Jo is neither.
As a Chinese woman, Jo lives in the grey area which affords her some rights and not others. When Jo notices the opportunity to make change in her life, she goes for it. Jo becomes Miss Sweetie, the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady.
Dear Miss Sweetie quickly becomes popular, and Jo finds herself using her new position as a way to challenge ideas of gender and race. This doesn’t sit well with people who prefer the status quo, and Jo soon finds herself facing the choice of remaining invisible or stepping out into the light.
My initial thought when seeing The Downstairs Girl was, “Oh, this is going to be like Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Hired Girl.” The Hired Girl has become one of my favorite books. So, the standard was high.
The Downstairs Girl evokes some of the feelings of The Hired Girl but is decidedly different. The setting and cultural dynamics set it apart.
The historical aspects are fascinating. I’ve never really heard of Chinese Americans living in the South during this time period — and I was a history minor in college. Most Asian history covered from this time period covers the building of the railroad and the West Coast.
While its historical elements drew me in, it’s the fictional story in The Downstairs Girl that draws you in. Jo is a character you want to cheer for. She’s smart and determined and everything you’d want your daughter to grow up to be. And the complex relationships she navigates highlight her strength and ingenuity.
The Downstairs Girl is an engaging read you won’t want to put down.
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