What an imaginative scenario! A Chinese teenager who designs hats, writes a newspaper column, and lives in the remnants of an underground railroad tunnel in 1890 Atlanta.
And that’s just the setting. The Downstairs Girl is rich in atmosphere, deftly-sketched characters, and ubiquitous perils for a young woman in the American South, where the only thing tougher than being black is being Asian. Though her daily life is like walking on eggshells, Jo Kuan is an enterprising girl. She takes advantage of every break, and when she learns that a local newspaper desperately needs an advice columnist, she uses her grammatical talents to establish herself as Miss Sweetie, anonymously dishing out radical social commentary to increase the paper’s circulation.
Meanwhile, she’s maidservant to a spoiled rich girl and companion to Gin, her mysteriously reticent foster father, who seems to know more about Jo’s parentage than he’s telling. And all of Atlanta is abuzz over an upcoming horse race, especially a group of suffragettes bent on using the event as a platform for women’s rights.
What more could a reader ask for? Yet, Stacey Lee gives us all she’s got, packing her narration full of wit and insight into Southern culture. Life is hard even for white women, and when one of them complains about the misery of wearing a corset, Miss Sweetie responds: “Leave the whalebone to the whales; it is healthier for both man and fish. The best way to boost your attractiveness is to accept yourself the way you are.”
Despite her lowly social status, Jo is clever at fighting the odds against her by exploiting her foes’ weaknesses to her advantage, blackmailing her mistress and swindling the gambler to whom Gin is indebted. “Justice and fairness are for other people,” she observes, “umbrellas that open only for certain heads. The Chinese just try to stay out of the rain, and if we are caught in a downpour, we make do, knowing that the rain will not last forever.”
The Downstairs Girl contains no foul language and only a few indirect sexual references.