The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

Jun 7, 2019

Sometimes I put off reviewing books I loved because it feels to daunting to try to condense all of my overflowing gushing into one little post.

And that is precisely why it has taken me over three weeks to write about this book.

It cannot be denied that even though 2019 has not been a huge reading year for me so far in terms of quantity, it definitely has been in quality. I have loved almost everything I've read.

But at this point, this book probably tops the list for me. It just checked every single one of my boxes: it was historical (just after the turn of the century--one of my very favorite time periods); it was written as a journal (my favorite way to read a first-person narrative); the story was sweet and innocent (a true young adult novel--although I'd probably still hold off giving it to a young teenager (I'll explain why in a minute)); the ending did not disappoint me (and I was so scared that it would!).

But most of all, it made me want to keep reading. I found myself sneaking in a few pages here and another few pages there. Any chance I could get, I was back with Joan, unfolding another bit of her story. And even though I've read so many good books this year, none of them have compelled me to keep reading the way this one did.

I loved it so much.

Joan Skraggs is a bright, intelligent young woman, but her potential is literally being snuffed out by her belligerent, hard-hearted father. He pulls her out of school and relegates her to the life of a chore woman on the farm. In a panic, Jane envisions her life stretching before her and realizes that she is trapped. Nothing will ever change. This will be her life forever.

But then by chance, she sees an advertisement in the newspaper for a hired girl. It promises six dollars a week, and that sounds like a fortune to Joan. She knows she has to at least try. It is what her mother would have wanted for her. Donning a (hideous) new dress, adding a few years to her age (from 14 to 18), and giving herself a new name (Janet Lovelace), she takes the train to Baltimore, burning her tracks behind her.

Baltimore is big and noisy and crowded, and Joan is completely overwhelmed when she arrives late at night without a single reference. She has all but resigned herself to sleeping on a bench in what appears to be a well-to-do, safe neighborhood when Solomon Rosenbach happens upon her and insists that she follow him home to meet his mother.

And that is how she ends up as a hired girl for the Rosenbachs--a Jewish family made up of Mr. and Mrs. Rosenbach, married daughter Anna, sons Solomon and David, young daughter Mimi, and long-time housekeeper Malka.

Joan's voice is vibrant and authentic, and she is impossible not to love. She has a little bit of Anne Shirley in her but is still very much her own self. She is dramatic and emotional. Her entries sway wildly between ecstatic and despairing, and, for the most part, it is completely endearing.

One of the really brilliant aspects of the writing is the conflict between Joan's pretended age of eighteen and her real age of fourteen. Sometimes I forgot she wasn't really eighteen. After all, she had left home, was earning her own wages, and was very responsible. But then I'd think, "Why is she acting like a lovesick teenager?? Oh yeah, because she is only fourteen, and this is literally the first crush she has ever had on a boy!" It really would have been so easy to just make her grow up really fast or not at all, but both ages were very much a part of who Joan was as she came into her own self.

On that subject, I'll just add one word of caution. The story is very mild and innocent (refreshingly so!), but there was one scene towards the end where Joan's emotions overcome her better judgment and she makes a rash offer. Nothing comes of it, and for an older teenager, I think it would actually be somewhat enlightening because you can see how quickly you can lose all sense of reality when you think you're in love. But personally, I don't know if I would be totally comfortable with a younger teenager (say, under fourteen) being confronted with this mature situation. But then, you know I usually fall on the very conservative side of things.

One of the things I loved about this story was the juxtaposition of two very different religions. The Rosenbachs are orthodox Jews while Joan tries to be a devout Catholic. Being a part of the Rosenbach household, Joan learns very quickly about kashrut (which foods are acceptable and the appropriate ways to prepare and clean up after them), the rituals surrounding Shabbos, and the inexcusable condition of anti-Semitism. As Joan studies Catholism with Father Horst and prepares to be confirmed, she has deep conversations with Mr. Rosenbach about the differences in their religions, and I loved these discussions. At one point, Joan says, "Mr. Rosenbach, have you ever gone off by yourself and tried to feel that Jesus Christ is your Savior? Maybe if you were to go somewhere quiet, and sit still and open your heart to Him, you might be saved from damnation. Don't you think it might be a good idea to try?" And Mr. Rosenbach (kindly but with laughter behind his eyes) counters with, ""Miss Lovelace, have you ever gone off to a quiet place, and sat very still, and tried to imagine that Jesus Christ is not your Savior?" Joan is at once horrified at the very idea, and I thought it was the perfect way to demonstrate that we all try to follow the feelings in our hearts as best we can, and that is going to look different for everyone.

I began recommending this book before I'd even finished it, but I did it with a caveat: "It's so good, I'm loving it so far, but the ending might ruin it." And indeed, as I got closer and closer to the end, I was convinced it really was going to all come crashing down, and I was going to hate it. But I'm happy to say that the ending was perfect, and I have no need to retract any of my premature recommendations. In fact, now I would give it my wholehearted stamp of approval.

I leave you with a little taste of Joan: "[Mrs. Rosenbach] said, 'I'm sure you don't mean to be rude, Janet, but I'm afraid you're rather impetuous.' I nodded agreement and tried to look penitent--though I like the idea of being impetuous. It sounds like a heroine. I'd rather be impetuous than placid any day."

1 comment:

  1. I loved this book, too! I read it with book club ages ago but it has stuck with me. In fact, I quoted from it in a talk I gave recently!


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