The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
Review by Lauren
Source: library copy; all opinions are my own
Official Summary (add to Goodreads): By day, seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta. But by night, Jo moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady, “Dear Miss Sweetie.” When her column becomes wildly popular, she uses the power of the pen to address some of society’s ills, but she’s not prepared for the backlash that follows when her column challenges fixed ideas about race and gender.
While her opponents clamor to uncover the secret identity of Miss Sweetie, a mysterious letter sets Jo off on a search for her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby. But when her efforts put her in the crosshairs of Atlanta’s most notorious criminal, Jo must decide whether she, a girl used to living in the shadows, is ready to step into the light.
Review: The Downstairs Girl is a book I’d seen around, but if not for the Cybils Awards, I might not have given it a shot…and what a shame that would have been! This book takes place after the Civil War, when race relations are still bad and people who are Chinese, like Jo, are viewed almost as badly as those who are black. If you’re Chinese, you can’t rent or own a home, so Jo and her surrogate father/grandfather live in the basement of a white family’s home, without them knowing. There is always the fear that they will be caught and kicked out, and then where would they go?
Despite it being upsetting, I did appreciate learning more about this time period in U.S. history. I didn’t realize that so many people from China came to the U.S. when the Civil War was over because they could no longer keep slaves. The Chinese people were just substitutes and still viewed as lesser than.
In The Downstairs Girl, Jo starts writing an advice column for a local newspaper, calling herself “Miss Sweetie.” People assume she’s a Southern, white woman, but Jo uses her new role to talk about racism and sexism, in as polite a manner as she can since she doesn’t want the newspaper to be negatively affected.
I thought the book was really good, though it’s not necessarily a fast-paced novel. It’s a bit slow here and there, but I always wanted to keep reading. I love that it had so many little mysteries throughout the book. The summary hints at one, but there is a lot more going on behind the scenes and Jo eventually finds everything out, shocking her, and I assume, most readers.