Saturday, February 6, 2016

'The Hired Girl' by Laura Amy Schlitz


Genre: YA, historical fiction, General market

Today Miss Chandler gave me this beautiful book. I vow that I will never forget her kindness to me, and I will use this book as she told me to—that I will write in it with truth and refinement…But who could be refined living at Steeple Farm?

Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs, just like the heroines in her beloved novels, yearns for real life and true love. But what hope is there for adventure, beauty, or art on a hardscrabble farm in Pennsylvania where the work never ends? Over the summer of 1911, Joan pours her heart out into her diary as she seeks a new, better life for herself—because maybe, just maybe, a hired girl cleaning and cooking for six dollars a week can become what a farm girl could only dream of—a woman with a future.

Inspired by her grandmother’s journal, Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz brings her sharp wit and keen eye to early twentieth-century America in a comedic tour de force destined to become a modern classic. Joan’s journey from the muck of the chicken coop to the comforts of a society household in Baltimore (Electricity! Carpet sweepers! Sending out the laundry!) takes its reader on an exploration of feminism and housework, religion and literature, love and loyalty, cats, hats, bunions, and burns

I'd challenge anyone to make it through this story without loving the main character and wanting the very best for her.

It takes the form of a diary written over the course of one year in 1911. Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs tells her own tale of how she escapes an intolerable home situation to work as housemaid for the Rosenbach family of Baltimore. Sometimes the style gets melodramatic, which suits Joan's personality, circumstances and the time period in which she lives.

It's easy to feel her desperation from the start. Joan's mother has passed away, her three elder brothers are boorish, and their father might surely be one of the most horrible paternal figures to be found in literature. Trapped in an emotionally abusive household, working hard every waking hour with no gratitude or pay, and no resources to satisfy her hunger for culture and knowledge, it's clear she has to find a way out.

The story highlights the difficulty of people who long to educate themselves with no means. For many hired girls in her position, books were only to be dusted, and certainly never touched. It's evident to those from modern times what a shame it is for people in this position to be then looked down on by others, for their lack of education when it isn't their fault. However, Joan is fortunate to end up in the home of Mr Rosenbach, who is depicted as the opposite of Joan's own father.

The story shows that beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. Joan has accepted her father's cruel assessment of her personal attributes, and comes to see that other characters, such as Mimi and David, regard her in a completely different way.

I love Joan's initiative, which always has the potential to go either way for her. The same attribute that spurs her to leave home leads to trouble on other occasions. How easy it would have been for her to stay put and assume that was her only option, as so many others must have done. This book is a strong call to readers not to 'settle'.

The section of the book in which she first falls in love has moments which are both touching and comical. Daydreaming about that boy takes Joan's attention away from all the fresh, new experiences she greatly appreciated until her feelings for him overshadow everything. Although it's fun to read, it also holds quite a bit of wisdom. All those other good parts of life are still just as appealing in the background, waiting for her to come back down to earth. 

I love Joan's tendency to 'call a spade a spade', so to speak. She isn't used to genteel manners and assuming behaviour for show. If something doesn't strike her as genuine and true, she'll say so. This helps her to think hard as she gets involved in dogmatism with the Catholic priest, Father Horst, when he tries to convince her not to work for the Jewish Rosenbachs. It also helps her to make the sorts of honest observations people may often feel, but not say, such as how resentful she gets when she has put forward her best effort and people still find fault with her, or when people criticise her for seemingly superficial reasons, or how embarrassed she feels when she doesn't 'get' the right social cues and feels she ought to.

Overall, it's great to see a new book for young adults set in this time period. Joan has many similarities to girls of her age through many generations, but the main difference may be her strong work ethic, which she accepts as part of life. How many fourteen-year-old girls who decide to make a chicken pie would include wringing the necks and plucking the chickens as an inevitable part of the job? By the end, I believe she's succeeded in making household chores come across as a noble art which not just anybody can carry off well. And that may be a challenge for teenage readers.

5 stars

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