It’s fairly common knowledge that Chinese immigrants helped build the American railroads in the 19th century. But it’s not so widely known that Chinese laborers were shipped in by Southern plantation owners to replace emancipated slaves after the Civil War. As the number of Chinese on American soil increased, resentment against these immigrants grew proportionately, and in 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act under President Chester A. Arthur. It was the first American law to restrict immigration, and the only one ever to target a specific national group. It wasn’t repealed until 1943.
One direct result of this legislation was that it wasn’t possible for wives or other family members to join the Chinese already living in the United States. Most were men working as cheap labor, and they struggled to integrate with mainstream American society. Neither black nor white, they inhabited a murky middle ground that often excluded them from both sides of America’s racial divide. In THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL (Putnam, 372 pp., $17.99; ages 12 and up) Stacey Lee breathes vivid life into a heroine and narrator named Jo Kuan, an American-born Chinese teenager who comes of age in this limbo of prejudice and restriction in Atlanta in 1890.
At 17 Jo has been raised by an aging Chinese stable hand, Old Gin, who lives with her in a hidden basement apartment originally built as a station on the Underground Railroad. Concerned that the family who edit and print a local newspaper in the house upstairs will be evicted if their subscriptions don’t increase, and worried that a new tenant might threaten her own domestic situation, Jo attempts to save the newspaper by writing a series of “agony aunt” letters and responses — many of them provocatively and purposefully controversial — under the pseudonym “Miss Sweetie.”
This alter ego gives Jo a voice and an outlet for exploring the host of issues facing her: racial bias, the introduction of the Jim Crow laws, women’s suffrage and emancipation, and the need to earn a living. Miss Sweetie’s persona also gives Jo the courage and ingenuity she needs to navigate a variety of emotional challenges. She loses her job designing hats because she’s a “saucebox” who riles some of her boss’s customers; she’s falling in love but has to keep it secret; she grapples with her work as maid to a fickle and fretful Southern belle who’s been a lifetime frenemy; she’s gradually uncovering the secrets connected with her own past. It’s a complicated plot with a whiff of mystery about it, even tragedy, all as deftly woven as one of Jo’s elegant hair braids or hat knots.
“The Downstairs Girl” holds a mirror to our present issues while giving us a detailed and vibrant picture of life in the past. There are two sides to every story — or more than two — and it’s easy to focus on the heroes, or the villains, when we look back at our history. Lee’s superpower is the way she adds shadow and contour to the picture.
Thus, Jo runs afoul of the dark underbelly of racism in the women’s suffrage movement; but she also sees that the unsavory characters she encounters in Atlanta’s underworld have realistic motivations and vulnerabilities.
The challenges Jo faces ring true for the novel’s historical setting, but they will also ring strong for Lee’s contemporary readers. As a young person, Jo is resoundingly American — an observant, open-minded, forward-thinking new woman with a Chinese face and a Southern accent.
Her engaging voice, along with her emerging self-reliance and maturity, drive the novel and make her a character we can easily relate to. Punctuating her narrative with Miss Sweetie’s tart and pun-filled advice, Jo’s witty and arresting turns of phrase and her positive outlook give buoyancy to her story even in its dire moments. As Jo tackles all injustices head-on, and tension rises, the book races to a soundly satisfying conclusion.
Elizabeth Wein’s first nonfiction book for young adults, “A Thousand Sisters: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II,” was published in January.
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