Stacey Lee explains in her notes at the end of The Downstairs Girl that she took inspiration from learning that, after the Civil War, Chinese workers were brought into the South to do heavy labor as a “replacement” for the recently freed Black people. Her protagonist, Jo Kuan, is the daughter of one of those immigrants, born into a deeply racist society where people of Chinese decent aren’t even allowed to own property or start businesses. Jo has always had a mind—and a voice—of her own and this novel is the story of her finally getting the respect she deserves. (This book would make a great choice for a book club.)
I am a sucker for novels about advice columnists (see Dear Mrs Bird); this is what drew me to The Downstairs Girl in the first place. After being fired from her job as a milliner for being Chinese and facing the possibility of losing the hideaway that has always sheltered Jo and her guardian, Jo volunteers to be “Miss Sweetie” to dispense advice to the women of Atlanta in the Focus. The job allows her to finally say the things she’s always wanted to say to the overbearing, the shy, the racist, the overworked, and the downtrodden. If Miss Sweetie can keep the Focus afloat, the family that runs the newspaper won’t have to return north—and no one will discover the hidden basement (built as part of the Underground Railroad) under their house. Meanwhile, Jo takes a job as a maid for the Payne family, with whom Jo has a long, troubled history.
The Downstairs Girl moves as a fast clip. As Jo bumps into institutional racism and sexism at almost every turn, she also uncovers secrets about the Payne family and about the menacing “fixer” who’s after Jo’s guardian. If Jo hadn’t been such a determined, resilient character, this book would have been really hard to read. As doors slam in Jo’s face (sometimes literally), she always seems to find a window to crawl into. It seems as though her alter ego as Miss Sweetie also helped Jo overcome her last reservations about ruffling feathers. By the end of The Downstairs Girl, it’s hard to imagine a challenge that Jo can’t overcome.