Review by Lisa Detweiler
New Castle Branch Library Associate
In her 2019 young adult novel “The Downstairs Girl,” author Stacey Lee tells the story of Jo Kuan, a 17-year-old young woman of Chinese American descent living in Atlanta, Georgia, in the late 1800s.
Jo works as a hat maker and lady’s maid and the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for genteel Southern ladies, while living secretly below a newspaper print shop. Old Gin, who came from China to labor on a plantation during Reconstruction, is the only parent she has ever known and has educated her.
Jo is smart and spunky and moves through all parts of Atlanta’s society, from plantations to shops to fixers and gamblers. Jo’s life is filled with people who are kind, cruel, generous, secretive, weak and strong. She works hard to uncover the mystery of her past and to determine her future, in the face of many barriers.
Lee writes dialogue and description specific to the time and place in which the story is set, but also writes with a unique and imaginative style. For example, Lee describes Jo leaving a house after an emotional conflict as “The front door fights me, and the paved stones of the driveway scheme to trip my feet.”
Lee uses Jo’s newspaper advice column to show the issues in society, especially the struggles women and people of color face, as well as to show Jo’s sharp sense of humor. For example, many people thought that women should not ride the newly invented bicycles.
Jo, as Miss Sweetie, advises “Bring on the odorless horse! They don’t need feeding on the front end or shoveling on the back end…. Ladies, why should men have all the fun? There is no greater thrill than that which comes from captaining one’s own ship through the waters of one’s choosing…. And to those who call women who ride bicycles vulgar, may your iron corsets…not weigh you down while the rest of us sail the freedom machines into the twentieth century.”
In a November 2019 interview with Lakshmi Gandhi of NBC News, Lee stated that “Historical fiction is really the only way we can time travel. It’s a way of going back and feeling immersed in a place and time that you would never have access to without the vehicle of the book. If I can get people interested in history after the story, that’s definitely a win for me.”
In addition, historical and other fiction can, like The Downstairs Girl, show us the universality of the human experience. A skilled author helps us feel the characters’ joy, despair, satisfaction, frustration, determination and anger. Reading a book can give us empathy for both fictional characters and real life people whose lives might on the surface appear different than ours.
In fact, Garfield County Library’s “Deeper Than Our Skins” virtual teen book club has been discussing books each month (including this one) that offer points of connection across time and cultures. On Dec. 15, all teens can meet virtually with Stacey Lee as part of this book club. Teens can pick up a free copy of The Downstairs Girl at any Garfield County Library, or download the eBook or eAudiobook. This discussion is free and open to all teens. Visit gcpld.org/lee to register and join the discussion or download a copy of the book.