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Reviewed by:
  • Wash by Margaret Wrinkle, and: The Housegirl by Tara Conklin
Wash, by Margaret Wrinkle. New York: Grove, 2013, 384 pages; and The Housegirl, by Tara Conklin. New York: William Morrow, 2013, 374 pages.

Wash and The Housegirl represent interesting entrees into historical fiction about slavery written by white women. Both are debut novels. Whether they are Kathryn Stockett’s sisters or Margaret Mitchell’s great-granddaughters, these writers approach their subject matter with a discernable sensitivity lacking in the works written by their literary antecedents. Wrinkle’s Wash, the more controversial of the two, as it treats studding and brutal scenes of sexual abuse, writes rather beautifully of a horrible epoch in our nation’s history. Wash, a slave in Tennessee, is repeatedly sexually abused and sexually abuses others as a stud for his down-at-the-heels master. Angry and simultaneously resistant in his own way to this abuse, Wash is able to find a way back to tenderness with Pallas, a slave horribly and repeatedly sexually violated by a trio of white brothers, who is brought back from the living dead through her connection to the land and healing.

Conklin’s The House Girl weaves multiple stories across time and place— modern-day New York—with a white woman lawyer named Lina, and Josephine, a house girl sexually abused by her master, who turns to painting as a release and finally escapes to a short-lived freedom. Josephine’s paintings are at once attributed to her mistress, Lu Anne Bell. The story also incorporates a slavery reparations case linked to the Bell’s estates profiting off the house girl’s work. The job of the lawyer is to find a descendant of Josephine. Conklin’s one-on-one with author Maria Semple could certainly inspire one to priority mail both authors copies of historian Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage—which deals with the charged and complex relationship between slave women and plantation mistresses’ complicity in their oppression. While the writing is not as enthralling as Wrinkle’s, and one has to wonder if a black woman writer could have secured a publishing contract with such stilted sentences and a convenient ending that skirts questions of passing and race mixing in whitewashing over time, The House Girl is an intriguing touchstone for our twenty-first-century engagements with theft of persons, property, legacies, and reparations. [End Page 94]



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