Review of "The Hired Girl"

Review by Catherine Baty

Schlitz, L. A. (2017). The Hired Girl.

In 1911, 14-year-old Joan is being taken out of school by her father. Since her mother died a few years prior, her father feels she should help her family on their farm. Before she leaves school, she is gifted a journal from her teacher, Miss. Chandler, who tells her to write with “truth and refinement”. Joan loves to read and write, but her father holds the worst opinions about her. After an incident between her father, herself and Miss. Chandler, Joan decides to ask about getting to keep the money from selling the eggs, as her mother did. She is rudely denied and decides to strike. In retaliation to the strike, her father burns her books. After this unforgivable act, Joan runs away. Her mother had hidden $29 by sewing it into the apron of a doll. Joan uses some of the money to travel to Baltimore, though she leaves a note saying she’s going to stay with her aunt. Lying about her age and identity by saying she is 18 and called Janet Lovelace, she finds work with a kind Jewish family and begins to learn about life in a Jewish household. Once the master of the house learns her love of reading, he allows her to use the library. She even makes friends with the youngest child, Mimi, who is 12, though Mimi’s mother is not fond of the friendship. Life in the Rosenbach household is good for Joan, even as she makes mistakes. When the youngest son, David, returns from New York, Joan finds herself falling for him. An artist and a bit notorious with the ladies, David seems to see the beauty that other’s in Joan’s life have not. On a dreadful night, Joan learns that David is leaving to Paris and no one told her, so she sneaks out to talk to him. They are discovered by the other housekeeper and it is found out that David kissed Joan, everything else comes out too. Mimi had read Joan’s diary and knows everything. It is decided that Joan will continue to work for the family, with David in Paris, but that she will also attend school beginning in the fall. She writes the last passage of her diary the day before school starts, excited and hopeful.

Schlitz is an expert at characterization. Reading though, I felt such anger towards Joan’s father that I wanted to reach through the book and give him a piece of my mind. Of course, everything that he said was proper to the time. What does Joan need with an education, when she has a family to care for? When he yells at the dinner table, “”You’d better jump,” he snarled. “You’d better jump, and you’d better cower, if you’re going to come pestering me for that egg money.”” I was frightened for Joan, and for her brothers. I could feel her pain dripping off each page as she stood against each cruel word her father spoke. The plot did not slow from there, but picked up pace. I was continually urged onward, right up until the end. Along the way each character sprang to life bringing with them meaningful dialogue and action. The settings were important to the novel as Joan moves from city to country, so does her outlook on life change as the settings reflected both who she is and what she wanted to become. At no point does this coming-of-age historical novel  make the reader feel lost in the world of 1911, but a part of it. Since Joan was an outsider to city life in the the time, and the book is written as a diary, the reader is able to learn with Joan as she navigates this new and confusing life as a hired girl. The authenticity of this story is to be praised, right down to Joan attempting to convert a young member of the family to Catholicism “the True faith” as she calls it. This moment in the book teaches Joan and young readers about the arrogance that can be found by holding one’s own beliefs in higher regard than another’s. Once Joan learns about the persecution of the Jews and takes down her crucifix for the sake of the housekeeper, she writes, “Even though taking Him down is a little bit like being persecuted, it isn’t the kind of persecution where babies are torn apart in the street.” This lesson would be particularly relevant to a young audience today. This understanding, that there are different types of suffering and that we should care about the history of other’s is vital to the development of empathy and I believe that a classroom audience would be receptive to it, especially if it were taught along with more current immigrant stories. Even though I found Joan to be overly naive, I cared for her and wanted her to succeed. I was a fish on a hook, Schlitz had me enthralled.

Scott O’ Dell Award 2016
National Jewish Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature 2016
Sydney Taylor Book Award for Teen Readers 2016

” The diary format allows Joan’s romantic tendencies full rein, as well as narrative latitude for a few highly improbable scenarios and wildly silly passion. Tons of period details, especially about clothing, round out a highly satisfying and smart breast-clutcher from this Newbery-winning author.” – Contributor, Kirkus Reviews on July 15, 2015

“Readers are treated to a domestic education as Joan describes the incredible amount of work required to keep house in the early 20th century. Coming-of-age drama and deeper questions of faith, belonging, and womanhood are balanced with just the right blend of humor.” – Lisa Crandall, School Library Journal on August 1, 2015

“The book is framed as Joan’s diary, and her weaknesses, foibles, and naiveté come through as clearly—and as frequently—as her hopes, dreams, and aspirations.” – Elissa Gershowitz, Horn Book Magazine in September/October, 2015

Gather with other YA books about immigrants from past to present, like:

  • Lai, Thanhha Inside Out & Back Again ISBN  9781432859916
  • Diaz, Alexandra The Only Road ISBN  9781481457514
  • Kadohata, Cynthia Kira-kira ISBN 9788992172202

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