The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, 400 pp, RL: Middle Grade

When I worked for a literary agent I attended a few conventions where authors, illustrators, agents and editors gave talks and offered advice. I also heard a lot about what makes a great manuscript in the office and there was one element, one outstanding quality that I heard referred to over and over: VOICE. Voice refers to the character of the narrator, and, if the voice is well written, it will be a strong voice that will resonate with the reader long after the book has ended. For me, an example of a book where the protagonist has a powerful, memorable narrative voice is Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montgomery. Anne is unforgettable and singular in her character and, understandably, Montgomery's book has become a classic and her creation beloved in many cultures. The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, winner of the Newbery medal for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village (yet another amazing example of Schlitz's gift for voice) is as fine an example of voice you can find. And, if you enjoy audio books, be sure to listen to The Hired Girl, which is perfectly, powerfully narrated by Rachel Botchan.

Written in one of her most valuable possessions, a beautiful diary given to her by her teacher on her last day of school, The Hired Girl is the diary of fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs that begins on Sunday, June the Fourth, 1911. The book is divided into seven sections, each of which is named after a famous work of art featuring women, with art acknowledgements at the end of the novel. Joan is younger sister to Matthew, Mark and Luke (she was supposed to have been born a boy) Joan misses her dead mother desperately. While her teacher, who both loans and gives Joan books, is impressed by her potential and tries to convey this to Mr. Skraggs, he pulls Joan out of school so that she has more time to keep house and work the farm with her brothers. When she reads about striking workers in the newspaper - and sees that she could be making $6.00 a week working as a hired girl - she tries to negotiate with her father. Furious with her, he burns the three books that she has been given and reads over and over - Ivanhoe, Dombey and Sons and Jane Eyre, and she knows she must find a "new servitude."

Joan devises a plan and makes her way to Baltimore, barely. Rescued by the son of a wealthy department store owner, Joan is given the conditional chance to work as the hired girl in the elegant home. After Joan's exceptional narrative voice, Schlitz's decision to land Joan, who wants to carry on her mother's Catholic faith, in the home of Reform Jews, the Rosenbachs, is a second master stroke. Already forward thinking for her time and place, the home of this worldly family that values education, independent thinking and nurturing creativity is both perfect and challenging for Joan - who, in a quick decision changes her name to Janet Lovelace and claims to be eighteen. Joan is tall - and big - for her age and, while questioned over and over, manages to make most of the household believe she is eighteen. Joan's three books have given her ideas about what life off the farm can and should be like and she is a devoted romantic, first thinking she is fond of Solomon, the oldest Rosenbach son who rescued her, then David, the younger Prodigal son, a gad-about who is scared to tell his father he would rather be an artist than take over the family business.  Then there is twelve-year-old Mimi Rosenbach, a slightly spoiled master manipulator who also allows Joan the opportunity to play and be the young girl she really is. And, while Joan must ultimately please Mrs. Rosenbach, she must also suit Malka, the aging, former nurse maid to Mr. Rosenbach who balks at the new modern ways the family is living. 

Joan learns all about kashrut, the Jewish food laws, as she works in a kitchen with two of everything, and she learns other aspects of Judaism as Mr. Rosenbach, who notices her intelligence immediately and opens his library to her, spends time mentoring her. Joan is also given the freedom to pursue Catholicism, receiving religious instruction from a priest that she ends up arguing with. She also educated in the religion of the Jews by Mr. Rosenbach. Schlitz has Joan and Mr. Rosenbach engage in a compelling discussion about Jesus. With Joan's narrative, Schlitz shows readers on the page how her mind works, how she receives and understands the world around her and how her sharp mind then turns this understanding into knowledge. Even so, she is still a child and no amount of intellect can keep her from making social and emotional mistakes. Like Anne, Joan is so boisterous, curious and driven to live her life that she oversteps, meddles, and makes painful bad decision after bad decision as she tries to live her life the way she thinks it should be lived. Schiltz's writing is so true and powerful and I related to Joan in so many ways. I was an avid reader when I was a teen, before the genre of young adult books existed, and I read adult literature like The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and anything by J.D. Salinger. These books warped my perspective and made me less willing to listen to my mother, who didn't know what to do with me. I said the wrong things - things I thought were right - to my peers and adults and found myself alone in my room crying just like Joan. And, like Anne Shirley, Joan has a way of doing a thing that she knows she should not do because she believes she is right. One of my favorite things that Joan writes, and something that distills her character so well, are the words, "I think I might be a little bit intransigent, but not in a bad way," Sometimes it is this intransigency that gets Joan in trouble, but it is also what drives her and keeps moving forward toward the woman she will become, the woman her mother wanted her to be. The ending of The Hired Girl is so perfect and powerfully moving and hopeful, exactly how you hope a book - and a life - will be.

Source: Review Copy and Purchased Audio Book


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful review of a book that has become my all-time favorite of everything I have ever read. Please correct one error you made in your opening paragraph about Laura Amy Schlitz winning the Newbery for The Hired Girl. Oh I hope so, but it hasn't happened yet.

Tanya said...

Thank you for your kind words - and for catching my grievous error! I went in and edited the post the day it published and it looks like I accidentally cut out a few sentences... That said, I am with you - THE HIRED GIRL must win a Newbery - or, more likely, the Printz. I wonder if it is considered YA? And it is such an amazing book. I know a book is really good when I start off listening to it then switch to reading because I need to devour it. Did you read A DROWNED MAIDEN'S HAIR by Schlitz? That was my favorite until now...

Anonymous said...

Tanya, I'm guessing from your response that you might not be aware of the discussions on Heavy Medal, Fuse#8, Read Roger, etc. concerning The Hired Girl. The number of comments and commenters truly amazed me. Since this book means so much to you, I think you will want to take a look. Not everyone in the world of Child Lit shares our view of this fabulous book. After all of the uproar, I wonder how the Newbery committee will respond. Luckily, there are two Jewish awards that will probably recognize
the value of this writing. Thanks for the suggestion regarding A Drowned Maiden"s Hair. I'll surely take a look.

Tanya said...

Interest piqued! Although I'm not ready to hear negatives about this amazing book... Thanks for that information!