Two years ago, I picked up The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee from Book of the Month. In honor of AAPI month, I decided to end May with this novel about a Chinese American girl living in the Reconstruction era South. I haven’t read much set during this time in American history, and certainly not about a Chinese American character. Not only was this a wonderful learning experience for me, it was also a fiery and inspiring novel.
|The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee|
|Number of Pages||366|
|Format I Read||Hardcover (BOTM)|
|Original Publication Date||August 13, 2019|
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.
With prose that is witty, insightful, and at times heartbreaking, Stacey Lee masterfully crafts an extraordinary social drama set in the New South.
In all honesty, I don’t believe I’ve ever read a book about Chinese American people living in the Reconstruction era South. It’s 1890 in Atlanta, Georgia, and teenager Jo Kuan loses her job as a hat maker only to become a lady’s maid for a wealthy family, the Paynes. The man she lives with, Old Gin – like a father to her – also works for the Paynes. The two of them secretly live in the basement of another family – the Bells – and in an interesting turn of events, this leads to Jo starting up an advice column printed in the Bells’ newspaper. She signs off as Miss Sweetie, though no one knows the true identity of the witty writer. She may have a hard time maintaining her anonymity, though!
There is so much I loved about The Downstairs Girl. First and foremost, Jo Kuan is one of the best characters I’ve ever read. She’s poor and faces both racism and sexism, and yet she’s so confident, clever, and courageous. She bravely stands up for herself and, through ingenuity, creates new opportunities for herself. I enjoyed reading about a young woman who is so smart and opinionated – attributes that lend themselves well to her advice column!
Speaking of Jo’s advice column, I quite enjoyed her short and sweet (Get it? Sweet like Miss Sweetie?) responses to the various inquiries she receives. Her advice is often clever and humorous, but also belies her strong opinions and sense of right and wrong. Numerous chapters begin with the question and answer, keeping the theme constant throughout the book.
Jo’s feelings on justice spread to how she advocates for social change in real life. At one point, she joins a Suffragists event, but she and the few other women of color present are relegated to inconsequential tasks. This is a painful reminder that, even though white women may fight for their rights, they can still be racist. They can still resist and even reject help from non-white women, thinking that belittles their feminist fight. This is the 1890s – about a century before the term “intersectionalism” was coined. Indeed, people like Jo faced more than one form of oppression, and it sickened me to read about it here, yet it was also enlightening. I applaud Jo for fighting for the rights of ALL women, of ALL people of color. She was ahead of her time, but she was by no means alone in her thinking even then.
Jo has complicated relationships with several characters here. One core struggle is her desperation to know who her parents were. Does Old Gin know the truth? Why won’t he tell her? Though he’s like a father figure to her, Jo still longs to know where she comes from and why her parents left her behind.
She also has a hard time with Caroline Payne, for whom she serves as a lady’s maid. The two have history together – they were once childhood friends – but Caroline is rather mean and bratty now. She makes Jo’s work that much harder… but Jo can hold her own. She’s pretty feisty!
Of course, I also have to mention the cute romance with her upstairs neighbor, Nathan Bell. This is a YA novel, and their love story isn’t at the center of it. Even so, I loved the gentle relationship that begins to form between Jo and Nathan. By the end, I was swooning and wishing I could see a sequel starring the two of them. They’re an adorable couple!
Beyond people, I also love the presence of horses in The Downstairs Girl. Throughout my childhood, I loved horses and always wanted one of my own. That wasn’t meant to be, but I still enjoy reading about horses. Here, Jo has a lovely mare named Sweet Potato, and she’s a skilled rider. It was fun to read about the horse race towards the end of the book… but you’ll have to read it to find out who wins!
The Downstairs Girl offers so much – a brave protagonist, a fight for social change, trying to uncover who she is, and forging new paths despite the oppressions she faces. It has horses, romance, and an excellent examination of the unique racism Chinese Americans faced in the late 1800s. Although this is a YA novel, aimed at a teenage audience, I would say that adults would get equal enjoyment out of reading it – I did!
I adored The Downstairs Girl; it has been one of my favorite reads this year, and it’s one I will recommend to everyone. It’s illuminating, powerful, and a lot of fun. Stacey Lee is an excellent storyteller, and I look forward to reading more of her books, including her newest release, Luck of the Titanic.
About the Author
Stacey Lee is the New York Times and Indie bestselling author of historical and contemporary young adult fiction, including THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL, Reese’s Book Club Late Summer 2021 YA pick, and her most recent, LUCK OF THE TITANIC which received five starred reviews. A native of southern California and fourth-generation Chinese American, she is a founder of the We Need Diverse Books movement and writes stories for all kids (even the ones who look like adults).