Book: The Hired Girl
Author: Laura Amy Schlitz
Age Range: 12 and up
When I started reading The Hired Girl, by Laura Amy Schlitz I found myself unable to put it down. This was not because the story was suspenseful in the traditional sense. The Hired Girl is realistic historical fiction, not some modern-day thriller. No, my inability to set the book aside was because the narrator's voice was so compelling. I had to know what would happen next to her.
The Hired Girl is told in the form of journal entries by 14-year-old Joan, a virtual domestic slave for her taciturn father and three rough older brothers. Joan's story begins in June of 1911, as she learns that she will not be allowed to return to school the following year. Joan is a girl who loves, who lives for, books and writing, but lives in a print-starved, dreary farming household. She only owns three books, gifts from a sympathetic teacher. Joan's life goal, seemingly unachievable now, is to become a teacher, as her deceased mother wished. When her father pushes her too far, with an act of deliberate cruelty, Joan runs away to Philadelphia, where she hopes to become a "hired girl".
It's not that Joan is perfect, by any means. The reader (particularly the adult reader) can see her making mistakes, even as she makes them. She is impulsive and interfering, and has airs far above her station. She is melodramatic and naive. But she's also bright and determined, and not afraid of hard work. She's religious, seeking to follow her mother's Catholic faith, but struggles realistically with various sins (such as her inability to forgive her father). But above all, she is real. I ached for her, and cringed for her, and shook my head when I saw her doing something she shouldn't. I cared about Joan, and that kept me reading.
But there is more to The Hired Girl than a great character. Schlitz immerses the reader in upper crust, 1911 Philadelphia, from ladies having bridge parties to the Pratt Library to the price of various clothing items in a department store. The Wizard of Oz is a new book that children are "crazy for" (even if it is considered "trash"). And the Impressionists are "as good as the Old Masters any day, but they aren't much appreciated because some of them are still alive, and the ones that are dead aren't dead enough."
The Hired Girl is also an in-depth exploration of Judaism vs. Catholicism. The family that Joan ends up working for is Jewish - she is their "Shabbos goy, which is a Christian who does the work that Jews aren't supposed to do on Shabbos." Joan learns about Jewish traditions and customs (and about the concept of anti-Semitism), even as she is also taking instruction from a Catholic priest on her afternoons off. There are several philosophical discussions between Joan and the patriarch of the Rosenbach household concerning questions like (paraphrasing) "which is the true religion?" and "do good Christians have an obligation to teach others about Jesus?".
Because Joan's first-person perspective is flawless, the information conveyed never feels remotely like information-dumping. Rather, the reader is learning with Joan. The religious and philosophical content is lightened by Joan's interactions with the vain but likable daughter of the household, a young nephew, and a cat or two.
I'm not entirely sure that I find all of the interactions in The Hired Girl realistic (the Rosenbach's are awfully patient with the mistakes and presumptions of a $6 a week hired girl). But I still enjoyed every word. I flagged many passages. Here are a couple of favorites, to give you a feel for Joan's voice:
"Father laughed. It wasn't a natural sound, or a happy one. When most people laugh, it's like water splashing over the lip of a pitcher. The thing happens easily , and it wants to go on. Father's laugh was like coughing up something from the back of his throat." (Monday, June the nineteenth, 1911)
"The truth is, most of the time, I don't of myself as the hired girl. I think of myself as somebody disguised as the hired girl. After all, I'm not going to be a servant all my life. It's temporary. At some point I'm going to get an education and become a schoolteacher, just as Ma planned. (Monday, July the twenty-fourth, 1911)
"The truth is, I think ball games are unfeminine. I believe ladies should vote and be doctors and maybe even be President, but they should stay tidy and not perspire. Most of my life, I've had to get dirty and perspire, but I haven't liked it. If you ask me, it's silly to run after a ball, and that kind of silliness ought to be left to the men." (Tuesday, August the first, 1911)
See what I mean? Isn't she great? I don't think you can tell from these passages, but I was able to see Joan's writing and vocabulary improve as the book progressed, as she read additional books.
There's always a balancing act when reading young adult books about characters from other time periods, particularly women. You want the author to be true to the time period, but you also want the character to be relatable to modern-day readers. I think that Schlitz manages this nicely. Joan is not as abject as one might expect a hired girl with no prospects to be (which is what makes her interesting). Yet she also has some very old-fashioned (to us) ideas about gender roles and marriage and the like.
The Hired Girl is a lovely addition to the ranks of historical fiction, one that I hope is widely read. The fact that Laura Amy Schlitz won the 2008 Newbery Award for Good Masters, Sweet Ladies (also historical fiction) should help. Fans of Schlitz's A Drowned Maiden's Hair: A Melodrama will also enjoy The Hired Girl (though that latter is aimed at a slightly older audience). Bottom line? I expect big things from The Hired Girl. I look forward to re-reading it one day, when my daughter is old enough to appreciate it. Highly recommended.
Publication Date: September 8, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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