The Downstairs Girl

As The Downstairs Girl begins, it's March of 1890, and 17-year-old narrator Jo Kuan of Atlanta needs a job to help support herself and Old Gin, who has cared for her since infancy. She reluctantly accepts employment as a lady's maid for a Nellie Oleson type who doesn't let Jo forget that she's Chinese.

Jo and Old Gin are secretly living in the basement of the Bell home, where the family publishes a progressive but financially imperiled newspaper. Jo eavesdrops on the family through a listening tube designed by the abolitionists who built the house, and one night she overhears the Bells talking about running an advice column to entice subscribers. Jo wants to help the cause--she and Old Gin will be homeless if the paper folds and the Bells must move--so she writes a column that she submits anonymously, using the pen name Miss Sweetie. Soon all of Atlanta is abuzz: Who is this Miss Sweetie who airs such forward-thinking ideas about ladies and colored people? Meanwhile, Jo has her own mystery to solve: What happened to her parents?

Stacey Lee, who also wrote the historical young-adult novels Under a Painted Sky and Outrun the Moon, has found her calling. In The Downstairs Girl, characters' conversations about newfangled inventions, like safety bicycles and electric streetcars, segue effortlessly into chatter about suffrage and segregation, the day's hot topics. But like any good historical novelist, Lee traffics in timeless themes, including first love; frets Jo at one point, "I cannot go spoony over Nathan Bell." --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author

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