Magical, Humorous Storytelling and a Thoughtful Take on Religion: Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Hired Girl
Lynn: I am not a happy flyer. In fact, I’m quite convinced that our plane arrives safely at its destination due to my willpower alone. So when I write here that I read the entirety of The Hired Girl (Sept 2015) on the flight to ALA’s Annual Conference in San Francisco, you will understand the power of Laura Amy Schlitz’s storytelling! For three and a half hours I was completely immersed in the story. In fact, I was so captivated by what I was reading that I completely forgot my duty to hold the plane in the air! (And yet, despite that, we all arrived in one piece—astonishing!) Please believe me when I say that this is a special book indeed.
We meet 14-year-old Joan Skraggs on the awful day in June 1911 when she learns she will not be going back to school. After the death of Joan’s mother, her father decides it is pointless to send her to school when she is needed at the farm to work. A stellar student, Joan loves school, and both Joan and her mother had dreamed of the day when Joan could become a teacher herself. But Joan’s controlling father cruelly belittles the dream, Joan herself, and Joan’s teacher’s suggestions.
“Marriage and motherhood!” he said. He jerked his head toward me. “Who’s going to marry her? No one’s going to take her off my hands. She don’t need books to fit her for marriage and motherhood.”
Joan isn’t about to give up her dream, however, and she makes plans to run away and follow her own path. The story is told through Joan’s diary entries and what a character she is: curious, determined, vulnerable, and yearning for affection. She is also often clumsy and inept, always well-meaning but sometimes a walking calamity. Through sheer luck, she finds a place as a housemaid for a wealthy Jewish family in Baltimore and the household is never the same again. She doesn’t understand kosher practices and washes dishes in the wrong sink, sets her hair on fire reading late by candlelight, falls in love with one of the sons of the house, and spins stories of Catholicism to the fascinated grandchildren who come to visit. But by working extremely hard and always trying to do her best, she wins everyone’s heart.
Schlitz’s magical storytelling brings these characters and the time so strongly to life that I literally forgot I was on an airplane. Don’t miss this wonderful and unique story—whether you are flying, driving, or just sitting at home on your deck!
Cindy: It’s rare to find a book that tackles religion head-on in a non-preachy way and integrates it so well with the story as Schlitz does here. Authors and publishers need to add religious discussion to the #weneeddiversebooks campaign. Most of the elementary kids in our area are at VBS (Vacation Bible School) this month and the teens away at church camp, and where are the books that include those settings along with good storytelling? Certainly, from my memory there was much humor and drama (and a surprising amount of romance) at church camp when I was a teen. My own kids came home confused from elementary school after being told that they weren’t Christians because the First and Second and Twelfth (okay, that’s sarcasm) Reformed Christian kids didn’t think Catholics counted since the word “Christian” wasn’t on the church sign. And the few practicing Jews in our area are something of a curiosity still.
Authors and publishers need to add religious discussion
to the #weneeddiversebooks campaign.
Joan seeks out instruction from Father Horst and attends Mass and struggles to be true to her faith, despite her missteps and temptations. The journal-entry format lets the reader see into her expanding awareness of not only her own Catholic faith but the traditions and beliefs of others. To read a book as entertaining, humorous, and pious as The Hired Girl, that educates readers about both the Catholic and the Jewish faiths while telling a great story, well, reason to rejoice. I have many religious middle-school students who have questions about their friends who are of different faiths, or subscribe to no faith at all. Exploring these differences and similarities in fiction is a great place for them to start, just like it is for so many issues in adolescence.
Joan takes a new name, Janet, when she moves to Boston, but she doesn’t give up her reading habit. She works her way through Mr. Rosenbach’s library of classics, even taking on the philosophers at his request. How can you not love a girl who writes this in her journal?
“Once the dishes were washed, Malka let me go upstairs to read—I’m reading a very thrilling book called The Moonstone. At one point, the heroine says, ‘I ache with indignation, and I burn with fatigue.’—or maybe it’s the other way around. I love that. I think I will start saying that.”
There are many other great lines that would make no sense if quoted out of context, but which made me laugh out loud as I read. For instance:
“Being a slain buffalo hasn’t done my suitcase much good.”
Janet had employed her battered cardboard suitcase in a game of make-believe buffalo hunting with young Oskar many diary entries earlier but . . . it will be funnier when you read it in context.
I kept channeling Anne Shirley of Green Gables fame as I read The Hired Girl. Joan/Janet would be a kindred spirit to Anne, and may find the same lasting popularity. This book is a treasure starting with its gorgeous cover, featuring the painting The House Maid, by William McGregor Paxton, that sets the stage for its subject and its structure (painting-titled journal divisions), down to its satisfying ending. Brava!