Lee, Stacey. Downstairs Girl, The. Fiction. Putnam, 08/2019. 384pp. $17.99. 978-1-5247-4095-5. OUTSTANDING. GRADES 8-12.
In 1890 Atlanta, Jo Kuan, a 17-year-old Chinese American girl, has just lost her job with a milliner for being a “saucebox,” so she has little choice but to return to work at the Payne estate as a lady’s maid. Jo and her guardian Old Gin live in a secret abolitionist basement under the print shop of the Bell family’s failing newspaper, and she has an idea that will allow her to let off steam publicly and boost the circulation of the Focus: she will write a satirical column on contemporary topics affecting women and people of color. Immediately, the anonymous “Miss Sweetie” and her radical views become the talk of the town. Through Jo’s biting wit and sharp intelligence in both her narration and her newspaper articles, the author effortlessly braids in historical information about the contradictions of late 19th century Atlanta society, the position of Chinese and black people in the South, and the emerging white suffragist movement. As post-Reconstruction Atlanta drifts into the Jim Crow era, a flurry of family revelations propels Jo’s understanding of the importance of marginalized people having and owning a voice, celebrating a message that is as relevant today as it was then. Review based on an ARC.
Hayley Beale, San Francisco University High School