Jo Kuan makes hats that the ladies of Atlanta adore, but she was fired because Mrs. English worried that employing a Chinese girl might hurt her reputation. Besides, she says, Jo is a saucebox. Old Gin arranged for Jo to get her former job back as a lady’s maid for spoiled, short-tempered Caroline Payne, but what Jo really wants is to write for the Bell family’s local newspaper. She knows a lot about the newspaper business, since she and Old Gin secretly live in the Bell’s basement, and she eavesdrops through an old abolitionist’s listening tube right under the print shop. Jo overhears young Nathan Bell worrying about declining subscriptions, so she forms a plan that will benefit them both. When she anonymously submits an “agony aunt” advice column to the paper, subscriptions begin to climb, and Jo takes on the pseudonym “Miss Sweetie.”
Chinese immigrants were brought into the South for a brief span of years to take on the manual labor formerly filled by African slaves. In the post-reconstruction, segregated region, they occupied a social position just slightly above blacks, but certainly outside of the realm of wealthy whites. In this novel, many Atlantans reacted to their existence with surprise and confusion. Since Jo was wittily articulate and had a flair for fashion, her presence seemed an affront to the wealthy, simpering debutantes.
Young Jo lives in a world of secrets. No one knows that a Chinese girl is the true identity of the controversial, pro-suffragist Miss Sweetie, nor does anyone ever ask where she lives. On the other hand, Jo does not even know her own parents, and she is similarly in the dark about her exact relationship to Old Gin, the only guardian she has ever known. Old Gin is filled with secrets of his own, both about the past and about his dealings with the shady characters that flit through the stables at the Payne’s estate, where he works. While Jo schemes to uncover the frail old man’s situation without his knowledge, she has learned that information can be powerful. Jo holds several secrets in her pocket that gain her a bit of privilege, but she is well aware that her hard-earned life could easily collapse like a house of cards.
Stacey Lee has created an immensely likeable and intelligent protagonist in Jo Kuan. This diligent and hardworking young woman is so focused on straining upward for herself and Old Gin that she pushes her own feelings away. Ever practical, she ignores her heart, since she knows that romantic relationships across ethnic boundaries are illegal in any case. In her carefully regulated society, crossing boundaries leads only to punishment and shame. Lee skillfully weaves the political issues of Jim Crow laws and women’s suffrage into a coming-of-age tale filled with family entanglements and the fierce struggle for individual freedom.
Very highly recommended for teens and adults.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.