The Housemaid’s Daughter

The housemaid's daughter

Cover 1

The Housemaid’s Daughter by Barbara Mutch; published (in the US) December 2013 by St. Martin’s Press

Genre: Historical Fiction

Review in a word: Powerful

Opening line: “I wasn’t supposed to be born in Cradock House. Not me.”


The Housemaid’s Daughter tells the life of Ada, a maid in Cradock House, in a town near Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Her mistress, Cathleen, is a mother figure to her, and Ada grows up as part of the family, especially after her own mother dies. Because Ada is not allowed into the school where Cathleen teaches, Cathleen teaches Ada at home. She learns to read, write, and—most importantly—to play the piano. In fact, Ada is somewhat of a prodigy.

The Housemaid's Daughter

Cover 2

When Ada is about seventeen, Cathleen (“Madam” to Ada) leaves the house for a while to visit her daughter in the city. During this time, Cathleen’s husband, Ada’s Master, comes to Ada several times and she becomes pregnant with his child. Ada feels incredibly guilty, but she doesn’t want to hurt either Madam or Master, so she runs away. For a few years Ada is able to hide with her coloured daughter, Dawn. She is shunned by both the black community and the white community for her daughter’s skin, but she finds a place teaching music at a local school.

Eventually, Madam finds Ada and persuades her to return to live with them in Cradock House. But by this time during apartheid, it is  illegal for a white person to have sex with a black person. Dawn is the spitting image of her father, so Ada and Dawn’s presence in Cradock House poses a definite threat to all of their safety. As Dawn grows older and Ada watches her daughter struggle to fit in, she is more conflicted about apartheid. Should she try to lay low, keep her head down, and stay safe? Or is there a way to join with those who are fighting against apartheid? And can she put her beloved Madam at risk?

My reaction:

The Housemaid's Daughter

Cover 3

The cover and title of the book really don’t do it justice. Cover 3 is the one on my book, and I have no idea why a young white woman is pictured. I guess it’s supposed to be Cathleen, but Cathleen is already at least middle-aged when the story begins. And “The Housemaid’s Daughter” is a terrible title. One of the themes throughout the book is inheritance: not just the goods that are handed down to you, but also your biological makeup. Several times Ada discusses “the inheritance of skin,” and I think that would’ve been a much better title. Because of the lackluster title and cover, I really didn’t have very high expectations going in, so I was surprised by the power of this book.

Ada’s life spans almost the entire period of apartheid. There is so much turmoil around her, but Ada is quiet, reserved, and dutiful. She is mistreated by nearly everyone when Dawn is born, but she never retaliates. She pours herself into her music, her favorite piece being Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude (below). She truly is an inspirational character, always peaceful and seeking to stop others from violence. She just wants to protect herself and her family, but eventually she realizes that as long as apartheid exists, her family will never be safe.

Ada’s other struggle, of course, is her guilt over sleeping with her Master. She feels guilty because he didn’t physically force her, but really—how could she have said no to the man who provided for her so generously and allowed her to be educated with his own children and paid for the burial of her mother?

Every woman always has the right to say no, but we don’t always know it. Ada learns this the hard way.

It’s not easy for Ada to come live in Cradock House again. Obviously, she’s afraid her Master will ask her to have sex again. But he doesn’t, and she soon feels compassion for him, because he’s so obviously tortured by his mistakes. Both Cathleen and Ada have a deep and real faith in God that compels them to treat him with kindness, though he betrayed them both.

Ada and Cathleen are beautiful characters who pour love into their community and stand by each other when everyone else abandons them. This book was the epitome of what I love to read. And as a pianist myself, all of the discussion about the power of music and the beauty of the piano was an added bonus.

You can read more about the setting, the characters, and Mutch’s inspiration for the book on her website.


I hadn’t realised that the piano did more than train your fingers. I hadn’t realised it could show me a world beyond Cradock House. The first time my fingers touched the ivory keys, I knew music would lift my heart, but I didn’t expect it to stretch my head as well.

What I did—how can it be both right and wrong?

Why didn’t I say no the first time? Why did I believe that duty was my only option? Even though duty and loyalty are often on opposite sides, it does not mean that one has to be sacrificed for the other. And if my duty and loyalty had been to God the Father—as it should have been—then I would not have had to make such a sacrifice, I would not have had to choose between Master and Madam. I could have chosen God’s way instead, and He would have told me to say no. Yet even without God’s way, why did it take such time and pain for me to learn that I had the right to say no for myself as well?

Perhaps this is His way with me. To speak to me not directly, but through those I love.

Recommend? Go read this now!

What I’m Reading Next: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

You might also like:

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Keeping Hope Alive by Hawa Abdi

One Summer in Arkansas by Marcia Kemp Sterling

My Generation: The Study of Harry Potter, Twilight, and Fifty Shades of Grey

I came across this fantastic article, “Majoring in Potterology,” and really wanted to share it with you. I love reading and I love pop culture. I’m always fascinated by the question: Why is something popular?

I love Jane Eyre and The Brothers Karamazov, yet I also read “childish” books like Harry Potter, and smut like Twilight and Fifty Shades. In choir I sang Handel’s Messiah, but I like to rock it to “Last Friday Night” by Katy Perry. I love classic films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Lord of the Rings, but every Tuesday morning without fail I am watching The Bachelorette on Hulu. (Our TV is broken—otherwise, I’d be watching it when it airs on Monday nights.)

Oh, Emily. You’re my favorite Bachelorette yet!

Besides the fact that I’m just a weird hodgepodge of eclectic tastes, I think there is something to say for the popular movies, TV shows, songs, and books. They’ve got to be popular for a reason. Why?

This article reports that the first scholarly conference on the Harry Potter series was held at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland (also, coincidentally, where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attended uni). Many people questioned the purpose of this conference. Some asked: Why bother studying a children’s book?

I wonder if Will and Kate like Harry Potter.

Well, I could point out several children’s books that are studied in college literature classes throughout the world. But that’s beside the point. I like Harry Potter, but I’m not a diehard fan. However, one of the reasons I like it is because I grew up with Harry Potter. The books were published each year, and I was always the same age as Harry, Hermione, and Ron. That was special to me. That connected me with the books. Thousands of young adults have had the same experience. But for whatever reason people like the series, it became a cultural phenomenon. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these “low brow” books become classics in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a hundred years, English scholars say, “Why wouldn’t you read Harry Potter?!”

It’s nice to know they looked just as dorky as I did at that age.

I rather hope books like Fifty Shades and Twilight, and TV shows like The Bachelorette don’t last and become classics, but they very well might. If anything, their popularity must say something about our collective tastes right now. Perhaps, culturally, we’re claiming a wild side that hitherto has been hidden and denied? Catching up with our European counterparts, who’ve always seen Americans as prudish? Perhaps, as a generation, we’re reacting against the high morals of our baby boomer parents and grandparents? Maybe, because of the economic crisis, we’re subconsciously indulging our basest desires in order to compensate? Who knows? Also interesting: Why am I still embarrassed to admit I enjoy some of these things? That could be more personal, or it could be cultural.

I like what Laura Miller says:

“Throughout the early 19th century, all novels were seen in more or less this light: as fanciful stories read by silly women seeking escape from sterner truths, women all too prone to absorbing dangerously misguided notions of life and love. (For the record, I tend to agree with the latter opinion, but that doesn’t mean I think Wuthering Heights beneath scholar interest.) As recently as the 1930s, it was controversial for any novel at all to be assigned to students at Oxford. Novels were regarded as recreational reading, not matter for significant study.”

Now, of course, novels are required reading for every English major. I probably wouldn’t have studied abroad at Oxford at all if novels weren’t allowed. We don’t know how things will continue to change in the future.

I don’t have any answers, but I do love this conversation and would love to hear your opinions. What do you think makes books popular? Are you embarrassed by any of your tastes? Why do you think that is?

Girls Who Read

This is an awesome video of Mark Grist, a British poet, performing one of his spoken word poems. Spoken word has always been fascinating to me…I love the rhythm and feel of it. It’s softer than rap, harder than traditional poetry. But you should check out some of the other videos of Mark Grist as well – he’s leading a movement to help kids fall in love with literature and poetry through rap. Why do I always feel like the cool things happen in England?

Christmastime is Here

This morning I woke up extra early (5:50… guess I haven’t adjusted to the time change yet). I didn’t want to get on my computer yet to start the daily ritual of checks – check email, check Facebook, check Twitter, check WordPress, etc. I was feeling happy and Christmasy. (I’m a morning person.) Christmas really is my favorite time of year. I’ve been listening to Christmas music for the past two weeks already. And as I’m going to be away from my family for the first Christmas ever, the fun traditions and holiday festivities mean even more to me this year. I felt crafty and creative, so I decided to do some coloring…

This is my Christmas list. It’s the things I want for Christmas. Not necessarily the material presents I want sitting under my tree Christmas morning (though, trust me, I want plenty of those, too!). This is my list of Christmas traditions, old and new, that I want to be sure I don’t miss this year. Most of these I’ve done with my family in the past, and I’ll be able to do some with them again when I go home in early December, but this year is extra special because I get to do them with my new family, too: my husband.

In case that picture’s not too clear, here’s my list:

Eat peppermint bark

Make fudge

Decorate a tree

See Christmas lights

Celebrate Advent

Reindeer food

Hot tub

Give gifts

Sing Christmas carols

Send cards

Watch Elf

Play piano

Hug family

Zoo lights (this is a tradition at the Portland Zoo)

Praise God

Read Luke 2:1-20



Make a wreath

I’m sure I’ll be blogging about lots of these as well… So what’s on your Christmas list?