The Downstairs Girl explores the social mores and prejudices of late-19th-century Atlanta through the eyes of a resourceful and gifted Chinese teen.
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019, 342 pages.
Reading level: Teen, ages 15-18
Recommended for: ages 15-up
Jo Kwan, age 17, and her adopted father Old Gin are both gainfully employed and get by comfortably enough–as long as no one knows they occupy the neglected basement of a print shop. One compensation to their literal digs is that Jo can eavesdrop on the Bell family, who print an alternative newspaper in their rented quarters above. But when Jo loses her job at a milliner’s shop (some of the customers object to being waited on by a “celestial”), the only recourse is the Payne estate, whom Old Gin serves as a stable hand. Caroline Payne, the spoiled daughter of the house, is a holy terror to work for, and on top of the instability of her job Jo is subjected to constant slights and injustices to her and her black friends. While listening in on the Bells, she is struck by a crazy notion: why not submit an item to their newspaper—such as an advice column, with tongue-in-cheek replies to very real problems, under the pseudonym of “Miss Sweetie”?
Perhaps Jo was born to such a calling: she’s clever, witty, and just provocative enough to raise eyebrows—and sell papers. Before long Miss Sweetie is the talk of the town, in a position to comment acerbically on bigots, unfair laws, and overbearing men. But how will she know when she’s gone too far?
As she did in Under a Painted Sky, Stacey Lee serves up a winning heroine and a plotty plot, with dashes of danger, humor, and romance. Jo is a crusader, but not an anachronistic one; her attitudes and opinions coincide with the progressives of her day, and her vocabulary and voice sound mostly authentic for the late-19th century. Though her road grows rough, she has friends to encourage her: “Sometimes things fall apart so better things can come together.” Certain questions seem to come together a little too neatly, and one win seems a bit improbable, but the ending is suffused with hope for those who have been downtrodden too long: “Victory is waiting for us. We have to be bold enough to snatch it.”
- Jo’s personal faith seems to mix elements of Christianity with traditional Chinese ancestor worship, but faith never comes in for ridicule.
- There is one scene with a man in a bathtub, with some oblique references to male anatomy. Nothing comes of it, though. Later, Jo and a certain young man share a kiss.
Overall Rating: 4.25 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 3.75
- Artistic/literary value: 4.5
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