Book Review: The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Book - The Downstairs Girl by Stacey LeeThe Downstairs Girl is set in 1890s Atlanta, and it reminded me very much of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, which also features a protagonist called Jo, who writes. But this novel examines American society from a different perspective – that of the outsider. Jo Kuan is Chinese, scraping out a meagre living as a hat maker, and hiding away at night in the basement of a print shop, with her adopted father (Old Gin). They exist on the edge of society – not white or black, but viewed warily by others as something in between, to be avoided and ignored.  

But Jo is not content to keep her opinions and ideas to herself. She decides to write a column for a local newspaper, keeping her identity a secret, and using the pseudonym ‘Miss Sweetie’, inspiring both outrage and admiration from her readers as she stands up for women’s rights.

She soon becomes bolder, attending a suffragist meeting with her friends, and confronting Billy Riggs, the local ‘fixer’, determined to protect Old Gin from harm. But her secret identity is threatened, and she soon begins to seek out answers to the questions she has been asking all her life, desperate to find out who her real parents were, and what happened to them.

Meanwhile she must also keep her home a secret, even from Nathan, son of the newspaper owner, who becomes more and more intrigued to know the true identity of ‘Miss Sweetie’.

As the plot thickens, we soon discover that other characters are also hiding secrets, and even Billy Riggs has a reason to keep quiet.

This is a fascinating story, with a funny, confident protagonist who is not afraid to take risks and stand up for the people she loves, despite constantly battling the open prejudice all around her. It gives us a small glimpse into the precarious world of Chinese immigrants in 1890s America, many of whom had initially been subjected to terrible working conditions when they replaced the slave labour in the South, and were forced to run away and seek employment elsewhere.

Set in a time of great social upheaval and extreme racial prejudice, this book plays a small part in highlighting the forgotten histories of those who lived on the margins of society. It has an extraordinary plot twist, and a satisfying ending, and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, especially if you are a fan of Little Women.

Buy a copy of The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee.

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