A New York Times Bestseller
From the critically acclaimed author of Luck of the Titanic, Under a Painted Sky and Outrun the Moon comes a powerful novel about identity, betrayal, and the meaning of family.
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.
"This vividly rendered historic novel will keep readers riveted as witty, observant Jo deals with the dangers of questioning power." --The Washington Post
"Holds a mirror to our present issues while giving us a detailed and vibrant picture of life in the past." --The New York Times
"A joyful read . . . The Downstairs Girl, for all its serious and timely content, is a jolly good time." --NPR
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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.”