June 27, 2016
The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz
More than anything, Joan looks forward to school each day. Her teacher, Miss Chandler, encourages Joan in her studies and even given Joan a journal to record her thoughts. Joan doesn’t realize how important this will be even when her father pulls her out of school. Joan may be only a young teen but with her Mama dead there is no one else to take care of her father and three brothers. Joan is needed at home to cook, launder, clean house, scrub the privy, take care of the chickens, garden, and put food up. Yet when she asks for the egg money so that she can buy books, Father tells her she isn’t good for much. When she refuses to cook a hot noon meal, he burns the three books she has.
When Joan sees a newspaper and realizes that the can make 6 whole dollars a week as a hired girl — all she’s have to do is housework — she runs away from home. She has to lie and tell people that she’s 18 but fortunately she is big and strong. Even people who think she is lying think she is 16 and not 13 which is her actual age.
As a hired girl for the Rosenbach’s Joan finds herself living as a shiksa in a Jewish household. She works hard but also thrives when she befriends the old housekeeper, a woman who may seem harsh and demanding but loves Joan fiercely. Joan records all that happens in her journal, including her love for the family’s oldest son. The truth comes out when their snooping daughter reads Joan’s diary and discovers Joan’s age and much, much more.
I don’t want to give everything about this book away so that’s all you’re going to get about the plot.
I was curious when I picked the book up because I knew it had one the 2016 Scott Odell Award for historical fiction but also that it had been criticized because of Joan’s prejudices. This comes out primarily in her relationship to her employers. Early in the book Joan writes in her journal:
“It seemed to me–I mean, it doesn’t now, but it did then–as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there are Indians out West, but they’re civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any.”
She also tries to convert her employers and there are several references to dirty Irish. The funny thing? The Jewish family is so much better to her than her own family. By the end of the book she has been befriended by an Irish cook — who is neither lazy or dirty. The only people who aren’t vindicated are the Native Americans.
Should young readers be given this book. Yes! Joan’s prejudices are historically accurate but she also overcomes the vast majority of them. She learns about anti-Semitism and even stands up to an anti-Semitic priest. Frankly, I don’t think that the Joan we meet on page 1 would have had the nerve.
I think that this book could lead to some excellent discussions about ethnicity, religion, intolerance and bigotry. But people have to be willing to listen. Lucky for young readers, Joan listened, learned and grew.