From the critically-acclaimed author of Under a Painted Sky and Outrun the Moon and founding member of We Need Diverse Books comes a powerful novel about identity, betrayal, and the meaning of family.
"A triumph of storytelling. A bold portrait of this country's past, brilliantly painted with wit, heartbreak, and unflinching honesty. Everyone needs to read this book." Stephanie Garber,New York Times bestselling author of Caraval
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.
"A gorgeous tale that will steal your heart. This is not only a keeper, but a classic!" Robin LaFevers,New York Times bestselling author of the His Fair Assassin trilogy
"A jewel of a story. By shining a light on the lives of those whom history usually ignores, Stacey Lee gives us a marvelous gift: An entirely new and riveting look at our past." Candace Fleming, award-winning author of The Family Romanov
"Clever, funny, and poignant,The Downstairs Girl is Stacey Lee at her best." Evelyn Skye,New York Times bestselling author of The Crown's Game
"Immersive, important, and thoroughly entertaining,The Downstairs Girl sparkles with all of Stacey Lee's signature humor, charm, warmth, and wisdom." Kelly Loy Gilbert, Morris Award Finalist for Conviction
About the Author
Stacey Lee is the critically acclaimed author of the novels Under a Painted Sky and Outrun the Moon, the winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction. She is a fourth-generation Chinese American and a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. Born in Southern California, she graduated from UCLA and then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall. She lives with her family outside San Francisco. You can visit Stacey at staceyhlee.com. Or follow her on Twitter @staceyleeauthor.
Read an Excerpt
Being nice is like leaving your door wide-open. Eventually, someone’s going to mosey in and steal your best hat. Me, I have only one hat and it is uglier than a smashed crow, so if someone stole it, the joke would be on their head, literally. Still, boundaries must be set. Especially boundaries over one’s worth.
Today I will demand a raise.
“You’re making that pavement twitchy the way you’re staring at it.” Robby Withers shines his smile on me. Ever since the traveling dentist who pulled Robby’s rotting molar told him he would lose more if he didn’t scrub his teeth regularly, he has brushed twice daily, and he expects me to do it, too.
“Pavement is underappreciated for all it does to smooth the way,” I tell his laughing eyes, which are brown like eagle’s feathers, same as his skin. “We should be more grateful.”
Robby gestures grandly at the ground. “Pavement, we’re much obliged, despite all the patty cakes we dump on you.” He pulls me away from a pile of manure. It was Robby’s mother who nursed me when I was a baby, God rest her soul. And it was she who told Old Gin about the secret basement under the print shop.
Whitehall Street, the “spine” of Atlanta, rises well above the treetops with her stately brick and imposing stone buildings—along with the occasional Victorian house that refuses to give up her seat at the table. Business is good here, and like the longleaf pine forests, being burned by Sherman’s troops a quarter century ago only made the city grow back stronger.
“You look different today.” I pretend to appraise him from his cap to his tan trousers. “You forget something?” It is rare to see him without the mule and cart he uses as a deliveryman for Buxbaum’s Department Store.
“They’re down a clerk. Mr. Buxbaum’s letting me fill in until they find someone new.” He straightens his pin-striped jacket, though it’s already straight enough to measure with.
“You don’t say.” Mr. Buxbaum is popular among whites and colored alike, but hiring a colored clerk isn’t done in these parts.
“If I do a good job, maybe he’ll let me fill in on a more permanent basis.” He gives me a tight smile.
“If you don’t stick your foot out, you’ll never advance. You’d be perfect for the job. I myself am fixing to ask Mrs. English for a raise.”
He whistles, a short low sound. “If Mrs. English had any sense, she’d give it to you. Of course, common sense was never very common in these parts.”
I nod, a surge of righteous blood flooding my veins. Two years I have worked as a milliner’s assistant at the same wage of fifty cents a day. Measly. It is already 1890. Plus, Old Gin has lost too much weight, and I need to buy him medicine—not a booty ball or buckeye powder, but something legitimate. And legitimate costs money.
One of the newly electric streetcars approaches, bringing by an audience of Southerners in various stages of confusion at the sight of me. An Eastern face in Western clothes always sets the game wheels to spinning between curiosity and disapproval. Most of the time, the pointer lands on disapproval. I should charge them for the privilege of ogling me. Of course, I’d have to split the fee with Robby, whose six-foot height also draws attention, even as he keeps his eyes on the sidewalk.
He stops walking and squares his cap so that it’s flat enough to play chess on. “Here’s my stop. Good luck, Jo.”
“Thanks, but keep some for yourself.”
He winks, then slips down a narrow alley to use the back door to Buxbaum’s. Old Gin tells me things have changed for the worse since I was born. After good ol’ President Hayes returned the South to “home rule,” Dems told colored people they should use the back alleys from then on, which pretty much sums up everything.
Fluffing the sleeves of my russet dress, which have lost their puff and hang like a pair of deflated lungs, I carry myself a block farther to English’s Millinery. The shop stands between a candle maker and a seed store, meaning it can smell like a Catholic church or alfalfa, depending on which way the wind blows. This morning, however, the air is still too crisp to hold a scent. The picture windows are as clear as our Lord’s eyes—how I left them last night—with several mauve hats displayed. Mauve is having a moment.
Instead of going through the front, I also trek to the back entrance. Folks care less about which door Chinese people use nowadays, compared with when the laborers were shipped in to replace the field slaves after the war. Perhaps whites feel the same way about us as they do about ladybugs: A few are fine, but a swarm turns the stomach.
Three boxes have been left by the back door, and I gather them in my arms, then enter. The sight of Lizzie trying on the nearly finished “sensible” hat I’d been designing stops me in my tracks. What is she doing here so early? She barely traipses in at nine, when the shop opens, and it’s not even a quarter past eight.
“Good morning.” I set the boxes on our worktable, which is already weighed down with reams of felt. The broadsides for the charity horse race are barely dry, and orders are already flooding in. Fashion is supposed to rest on Lent, but God will surely make an exception for the event of the year. The proprietress will probably want me to stay late again or work during the lunch hour so she can sneak off to nip her coca cordial. Well, not without a raise, I won’t.
“Mrs. English wants to speak with you,” Lizzie says in her breathy voice. She smooths a hand down the rooster tail I’d pinned to the sensible hat with an eternity knot. Ringlets of strawberry-blond hair play peekaboo under the saucer brim.
I remove my floor-length cloak and black hat, one of the misfits that Mrs. English let me purchase at a discount, this one made possible through Lizzie’s clumsy hands. Then I tie on a lace apron.
The velvet curtain separating the store from the workroom jerks to one side, and Mrs. English bustles in. “There you are,” she says in her haughty schoolmarm’s voice.
I dust off my drab shop cap. “Good morning, ma’am. I had an idea. What if, instead of wearing these toadstools, we model our latest styles? See how fetching my sensible hat looks on Lizzie—”
Mrs. English frowns. “Put the toadstools on, both of you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Lizzie and I say in unison. I slip my cap over my head. I should ask now, before she asks me to stay late, so my request does not appear a hair-trigger reaction. I wipe my palms on my skirt. “Mrs. English—”
“Jo, I will no longer be requiring your services.”
“I—” I clamp my mouth shut when her words catch up to me. No longer required . . . I’m . . . dismissed?
“I only need one shopgirl, and Lizzie will do.”
Lizzie draws in a sharp breath. Her normally sleepy eyes open wide enough to catch gnats.
“Lizzie, open the packages. I hope the new boater block’s in one of them.” Mrs. English wiggles her fingers.
“Yes, ma’am.” Drawers clatter as Lizzie rummages for a knife.
“B-but—” I turn my back on Lizzie and lower my pipes to a whisper. “Mrs. English, I trained her. I can felt a block twice as fast as her, I’m never late, and you said I have an eye for color.” I can’t lose this job. It took me almost two years to find steady work after my last dismissal, and Old Gin’s meager wage as a groom isn’t enough to sustain us both. We’d be back to living hand to mouth, tiptoeing on the edges of disaster. A bubble of hysteria works up my chest, but I slowly breathe it out.
At least we have a home. It’s dry, warm, and rent-free, one of the perks of living secretly in someone else’s basement. As long as you have a home, you have a place to plan and dream.
The woman sighs, something she does often. Her great bosom has a personality of its own, at times riding high, and at times twitchy and nervous, like when the mayor’s wife pays a visit. Today’s gusting tests the iron grip of her corset. Her rheumy eyes squint up at me towering over her. “You make some of the ladies uncomfortable.”
Each of the syllables slaps me on the cheeks, un-com-for-ta-ble, and mortification pours like molten iron from my face to my toes. But I’m good at my job. The solicitor’s wife even called the silk knots I tied for her bonnet “extraordinary.” So what about me causes such offense? I wash regularly with soap, even the parts that don’t show. I keep my black hair neatly braided and routinely scrub my teeth with a licorice root, thanks to Robby. I’m not sluggish like Lizzie or overbearing like Mrs. English. In fact, I’m the least offensive member of our crew.
“It’s because I’m . . .” My hand flies to my cheek, dusky and smooth as the Asian steppes.
“I know you can’t help it. It’s the lot you drew.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I don't always pay attention to ads, but the cover of this book really intrigued me with it's Asian heroine and historical style of clothing. I've been noticing more and more books with Asian protagonists, which is something I am absolutely thrilled about as an Asian-American woman myself. Historical fiction is my favorite genre, and then to find that there are even horses involved, it's like the book was written for me! Jo Kuan lives with her adoptive father, Old Gin, underneath a struggling Atlanta newspaper whose owners are unaware of their presence. Jo works as a lady's maid for one of the city's wealthiest families, while spending her nights writing the Focus's advice column under the name Miss Sweetie. Miss Sweetie is provocative, with new ideas that challenge those around her with questions of race and gender roles. Meanwhile she searches for answers to her mysterious parentage, while putting everything she holds dear at risk by getting involved with a notorious trader of secrets. Jo is a Chinese-American young woman growing up in the aftermath of the Southern Reconstruction, where those of Asian descent have even less rights and are despised more than those who are Black. Jo is hardworking, industrious, with a love for words, and a strong dose of common sense. She is irrepressibly forthright and clever both of which get her into trouble and help her. A riveting coming of age tale, with distinct and engaging narrative, that shows Jo's wry humor, Southern upbringing, and the influence of Old Gin's Chinese proverbs. As the story progresses, we see that not everyone is what they appear, and long held secrets revealed can change lives. I loved how this book explores a time in history through the eyes of Jo, a minority not commonly acknowledged in historical fiction set in the same time period and place, giving a unique look at Reconstruction Era Atlanta. Old Gin is the only father Jo has known, he has sacrificed much to raise her and keep her safe, often telling her truths wrapped in proverbs or fables. Noemi is a talented, and determined young woman with big dreams of a better future. Nathan Bell is a forward thinking young man, who challenges himself to look at the story from different angles. A thoroughly engaging read from beginning to end, I didn't want to put it down! Ms. Lee does an excellent job of crafting complex characters against the backdrop of a young nation fighting for women's rights, turning a blind eye to rampant racism. Secrets whisper, to life in this stunning novel from Stacey Lee, a story about coming of age, equality, courage, truth, secrets, daring, and love. Strong themes of family run through this novel, as well as sacrifice, love and the courage to stand up for yourself. You won't regret picking this one up! Books reviewed are checked out from my local library or purchased with my own money, unless otherwise noted.
I don’t usually read the historical genre, but Stacey Lee’s historical books are always so good. I kept putting off reading this book because I have to be in the right mood, and I’m so upset at myself for not reading this sooner. The Downstairs Girl depicts a story of a girl trying to find her place amidst a society that rejects her. Stacey Lee weaves history so well into this story without being too stagnant and info-dumping. If you’ve been educated in America, the only people of color you really learn about during this time are African Americans. Lee writes about what it meant to be Chinese/Chinese-American in this era of segregation without glossing over African-American issues. I learned a lot from this book. Asian people were considered colored at this time, segregated but not as looked down upon as African Americans. There are two important African-American side characters, and we see how different their and Jo’s worlds are sometimes. Yet there are similarities, as all whites look down on them. Even though Jo must walk around on eggshells at all times to avoid any aggression, her stubbornness and headstrong quality is still expressed. She always voices her opinions, even at detrimental times. I loved following her as she navigates being Miss Sweetie without being caught. It was also interesting to see why she wanted to be Miss Sweetie; she knows that if she’s caught, she would be jailed, or worse, killed. This is an act of rebellion with deadly consequences, but this is also the time of suffragettes, when rebellion is all around, so why not join in? With Jo’s friend Noemi, we get to see how the suffragette movement was really only for white women, which I loved seeing portrayed. It’s a harsh truth to some people, namely those women who put their “I voted” stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s grave in the last election. Women of color were involved in this movement, but white women only cared about their right to vote. Despite being women, Jo and Noemi are kicked out of the meeting because they aren’t white. This was so important to portray; even though women were fighting for their right to vote, they were really only fighting for white women to vote. The Downstairs Girl portrays characters of color who don’t lose their spirit despite being discriminated against, living in a society that aims to put them down. I loved reading about Jo and Old Gin and Noemi and Robbie, who are very much their own people, fighting for their place in the world. Lee writes in a clear bell tone about issues that are rarely touched upon in young adult literature. Pick this book up and learn some things about a history rarely talked about.
All Jo Kuan wants to do is make hats. However, her race has made that impossible when she's fired from Ms. English's hat shop and forced to return to a job that she despises: working as a lady's maid to Caroline Payne, who's determined to make Jo's life a living hell. Additionally, Jo and her caretaker, Uncle Gin, live underneath the Bell family, who publishes a newspaper that has seen better times. Feeling obligated to come to their aid, Jo becomes the pseudonymous author of an advice column known as Dear Miss Sweetie. The story follows Jo as she sees instances of injustice and pens her frustrations as Miss Sweetie. This gains the interest of Atlanta, especially the women, who come to identify with Jo's persona. Of course, the audience believes that Ms. Sweetie is a genteel Southern lady, which only adds to the story. There's also a horse race sponsored by Mrs. Payne and a crook named Billy Riggs, who threatens to uproot everything that Jo holds dear. Threaded throughout the story is racism. The story is backdropped against the suffragette movement and Lee takes this opportunity to show the toxicity of white feminism. Suffragettes are shown to only have an interest in earning the white women's vote but still rely on the work of black and minority women to accomplish this. Lee also demonstrates the clear distinction between white and black folk and how the Chinese are often overlooked in this equation. This is shown through the segregation laws of the streetcars and how Old Gin and Jo cannot sit on the car at all because they are not white or black. While not the primary focus, this book showcases that are often overlooked in historical fiction and voices that have been heard before.
When I read the description for The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee and decided to request it, I expected something along the lines of Downtown Abbey in Atlanta with a dash of feminism, race relations, and American history. I was pleasantly surprised to be almost entirely wrong about those ratios. Instead, this YA historical drama is just a smidge of class divisions and skirmishes between servants and their employers added to a story all about racial and gender inequalities in American society, the experiences of Chinese immigrants in the South in the 1890s, and a clever girl questioning and defying the restrictions set by her society. Jo Kuan is the daughter of an unknown Chinese immigrant, born in America but without any sort of documentation to support that fact. She has grown up living in a hidden set of rooms underneath a local newspaper printer and working for one of Atlanta’s wealthiest families. After her job with a haberdasher falls through, Jo finds herself back working for the family that dismissed her without any explanation, serving as a lady’s maid for the spoiled girl who made their shared childhood a misery. Then, when falling subscriptions threaten the business of the newspaper printer above Jo’s home, Jo is inspired to submit an anonymous advice column to stir interest and draw in readers. As she finds her voice through her column as “Miss Sweetie,” Jo navigates increasing racial tensions, the budding women’s suffrage movement, and a mysterious debt that threatens the only family she has ever known. I truly love Jo’s voice. She’s opinionated, blunt, and sarcastic, sharing her thoughts on the world around her even when discretion might be safer. Even without the main plot of the book, I might have been entirely happy to just follow Jo around Atlanta and listen to her commentary on the people and society around her. Most chapters open with an exchange from the advice column that Jo operates under the pseudonym “Miss Sweetie” and her advice is both insightful and hilarious. The subplot with Billy Riggs and the mystery around a letter that may connect to Jo’s parents were initially less compelling. I kept waiting for them to be over so the book could get back to more interesting elements of the story, but the moment when it all came together was so satisfying and brought all the preceding plot elements into perspective. Finally, The Downstairs Girl is a fantastic addition to own voices young adult fiction. When I think back to the historical fiction that I have read in the past, so many seem to either forget that non-white people existed or stick them in at the fringes. Even books that acknowledge the long history of African-Americans tend to leave out Chinese Americans and how they fit into America’s fraught race relations and the systemic discrimination against non-white Americans. As a Chinese-American, Jo Kuan isn’t considered either white or black, but somewhere in between for the purposes of social rules like where to sit on the streetcar. She can’t legally rent or own a residence, has trouble finding work because of employers’ reluctance to hire her, and can’t legally marry anyone but another Chinese-American or Chinese immigrant. It’s fascinating to follow a protagonist through a part of American history that my classes never covered, and Jo’s story draws you in and keeps you invested down to the last page.
It's the turn of the 19th Century and Jo Kuan is a young girl just trying to get by in life as undetected as possible. She and her surrogate father, Old Gin, are one of few Chinese living in Atlanta in a sort of in-between state: not treated as badly as the African-Americans but certainly nowhere near the privilege of whites. After unjustly losing her job making hats, Jo is taken on as a lady's maid for the vicious daughter of one of the wealthiest men in town. While she spends her days being berated, she spends her nights pseudonymously penning the wildly popular newspaper advice column, "Dear Miss Sweetie", where she tackles the hot topics of societal norms. After coming across a mysterious letter, Jo embarks on another quest: uncovering the family who abandoned her and discovering who she really is. When her investigation puts her in the sights of a notorious criminal, and the fevered backlash from her articles causes everyone to seek out who the real Miss Sweetie is, Jo must decide if she's strong enough to finally step out of the shadows and into the light. I absolutely adored this book. It was insightful and brilliantly written, and I appreciated how Lee didn't sugarcoat anything so it felt very true to the time period. Jo was such a confident, determined character and I really felt for her. I found myself getting mad or celebrating her small victories along with her. The arc that her character goes on throughout the story is so powerful. By the end, she really knows who she is and is secure in it. I also really enjoyed the side characters, especially Noemi and Nathan and even Bear. There were also twists in this book that I didn't see coming, which I always love. This was a book that I started recommending to people before I even finished it. If you're a fan of historical fiction or strong female leads, definitely check this one out.