The Downstairs Girl

Written by Stacey Lee
Review by Sarah Hendess

Once again, Stacey Lee shines light on an overlooked segment of America’s past and reveals truths about its present.

In Atlanta in 1890, seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan and her adoptive father live in secret in a hidden basement under a printshop. Jim Crow is infecting the city, and as a Chinese-American girl, Jo finds herself in the middle of segregation, neither as privileged as a white woman nor as scorned as an African-American. By day she is a maid in one of Atlanta’s wealthiest households, but by night, she is “Miss Sweetie,” an anonymous advice columnist for the newspaper housed above her home. While the city buzzes about Miss Sweetie’s provocative ideas regarding race and women’s roles, Jo searches for her birth parents. Her search puts her at odds with one of Atlanta’s most notorious criminals, and Jo realizes she cannot live on the fringes forever.

Lee brilliantly exposes the shame of discrimination against the Chinese who helped rebuild the South during Reconstruction without taking away from the more oppressive racism levied on African-Americans. Through Jo, Lee exposes the futility of segregation (it “seems as ridiculous as putting robins and blue jays in different trees and expecting them not to share the same sky”), and the precautions that all women must take to move safely through society.

Though Jo is bright and strong-willed from the beginning of the novel, she is still a dynamic character, shaping and being shaped by the events of the novel and providing a satisfying, and often surprising, character arc. Lee educates readers about life in Atlanta in the late nineteenth century, as well as nudges them to consider the importance of using their voice and of standing closer to those who are different from them.

A masterful novel from an exceptional storyteller. Highly recommended.