The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz


I think I liked this book.  Yes, I did like it.  It’s … unusual.  It’s a “young adult” “coming of age” (apologies for use of clichés) book, set in 1911, written as a diary, about Joan, a 14-year-old girl who runs away from her family farm in Pennsylvania to become a “hired girl” in Baltimore.  In a lot of ways it’s a pastiche of late Victorian/Edwardian girls’ books, but it couldn’t have been written at that time.  I was going to say Anne of Green Gables crossed with Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, but a) it’s not actually as good as either of those, b) it’s about a girl who works as a housemaid and c) neither Anne nor Margaret are ever as silly as Joan is sometimes.  But along those lines.  Maybe a slight touch of A Woman of Substance too: I certainly can’t see Joan ending up as one of the richest women in the world, but there’s that sense of wanting to seem a bit more elegant and refined than her work allows.  And the prattling’s reminiscent of Angela’s Ashes. It’s really mean to keep comparing a book with other books, isn’t it?  I’m just trying to give some sense of it, because it is an unusual combination. And I get that thing about writing lists mid-sentence from Daddy Long Legs, whilst I’m on the subject of “young adult” books!

Other books do get mentioned a lot.  The main character, Joan Skraggs, who changes her name to Janet Lovelace when she runs away, is very keen on Jane Eyre, and to a lesser extent Ivanhoe and Dombey and Son, and is eager to find parallels between events in her life and events in books.  Yep, I used to do that when I was 14!  I still do, sometimes.  Not that anything very exciting happened when I was 14, but never mind.   So you get the idea that, like Anne Shirley, she’s got a vivid imagination and gets carried away with things!   But she isn’t able to do that at home.  There’s no Lake of Shining Waters or anything else there, just a father who, with her mother having died, expects her to do all the housework for him and her three brothers, and doesn’t want her to continue her education, even by reading at home.  When she rebels, her father burns her three beloved books, which had been given to her by a teacher, and she runs away to Baltimore, where she pretends to be 18 and gets a job as a hired girl/maid in the home of the well-to-do middle-class Rosenbach family.

I read some reviews on Amazon before I bought this, and not one of them had said anything about having someone trying to “better” herself by taking a job as a servant.  Am I being Terribly British here?   I mean, the term “hired girl” seemed odd to me, because that term is not used in British English: we would say that she was working as a maid.  It makes perfect sense that Joan feels she will have more opportunities doing paid domestic work for a third party, especially in a city, than she will doing unpaid domestic work on her family’s farm, but, snobbery aside – you would never in a million years have got one of the March girls, or even one of the Ingalls girls, or, once she’d got settled with the Cuthberts, Anne Shirley, taking a job as a maid – having a family farm is an American Dream.  She gives up being part of a family farm to become someone else’s servant.  But I can see how it means more independence and more opportunities for her.  Does that mean that the American Dream was a Man Thing, apart from a few exceptional women, like Eliza Jane Wilder, who had their own land?   Am I just totally overthinking this?  Yes, probably.  I overthink most things.

The Rosenbachs, on the other hand, are living the American Dream.  Mr Rosenbach, the head of the household, is the son of a German Jewish immigrant – a very large number of people, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish, came to Baltimore from Germany in the early to mid 19th century – and now owns a large department store.  He encourages Joan/Janet to read, lets her borrow the books in his library, and wishes that his own daughter Mimi was as keen to read as she is.  It’s not the usual master-servant relationship but, on the other hand, it’s a very Victorian middle-class (yes, I know that 1911 is not “Victorian”!) idea of encouraging self-improvement.  Central to the book are Joan’s relationships with the various members of the household – Mr Rosenbach, his wife, his two sons, his young daughter, his married daughter, and their housekeeper.

There is quite a lot of religion in this.  It’s OK, it’s not one of those Frightfully Pi old-style American girls’ books! Joan is not Elsie Dinsmore!  And she isn’t even someone like Jo March or Laura Ingalls, for whom religion is such an intrinsic part of their lives that they never really question it.  She classes herself as a Catholic, like her mother – her father is a Protestant – but has never had much religious education and has never been confirmed.  She’s keen to be a practising Catholic, and begins attending church and taking instruction, but she never just accepts what she’s told: she does think about it.

Then there’s the fact that we’ve got a Catholic girl working in a Jewish household, and the issues surrounding religion within the household.  I’m not quite convinced that a family who are so concerned about keeping kosher that they have separate meat and milk sinks would think it looked good to serve oyster patties at a bridge evening – I get that oyster patties are posh, but I just don’t find it very realistic – but the idea was to show the tension, which you get with any second generation immigrant family between the ideas of the Old Country and wanting to move onwards and upwards in the new country.  Interestingly, it’s the eldest son who wanted to stick with tradition.  With second and third generations, you generally find that the older generation wants to stick with tradition and it’s the younger generation which doesn’t.  With the Rosenbachs, the eldest son wants to go to a yeshiva and study Jewish religious stuff, instead of working in the family business.

He also wants to marry a girl from a Polish Jewish immigrant family, and that – the class and social differences between a Jewish family whose ancestors had moved to America from Germany in the early to mid 19th century and a Jewish family whose ancestors had moved to America from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century – is very rarely explored in books.  I was going to say Evergreen, but that doesn’t really work because the Werners’ background was all a bit complicated … I forget the details, but I think Sephardi ancestors from New Orleans were involved somewhere!

So, yes, there’s a lot of religious stuff, but it’s done in an unusual way.  And, for anyone who isn’t familiar with the laws of kashrut and wants to learn, here is your chance!   We hear everything that Malka, the traditionally-minded, Yiddish-speaking Jewish housekeeper, teaches Joan about keeping a kosher kitchen.  We also get a lot of potato kugels and lokshen puddings.

There’s one awkward bit, when Joan decides that she should try to preach the “true faith” to the Rosenbachs’ young grandson, and Mrs Rosenbach isn’t very pleased, but they get past it.  There are actually a lot of awkward bits involving Joan and various family members, notably when she tries to matchmake between the eldest son and a girl she thinks he likes; and it’s amazing that she never gets sacked, but that would have ruined the story!   She also becomes romantically involved with the younger son, who, like his brother, isn’t interested in the family business, but, unlike his brother, is an arty type who wants Joan to model for some paintings (not those sort of paintings – they’re all clothes on!).

OK, you always get a romance in a coming of age story, but I felt uncomfortable with this because he, a young man in his early 20s, thought that she was 18.  OK, there would still have been the class and religious differences, but there’s no sense that he’s the sort of man who’d have gone after a 14-year-old, and I just found it … well, as I said, uncomfortable.  It never goes beyond kissing, but even so.  Joan does prattle on a lot, and the reader could never think that she was much older than 18.  And she convinces herself that one kiss means that they’re getting married.  Somehow, however silly it obviously is, that comes across convincingly, and you do end up feeling sorry for her when she’s inevitably disappointed.   That’s when it all comes out, that she’s only 14.

Then it ends on a very Victorian self-improvement note.  Am I being really Lancastrian with the Victorian self-improvement thing?!  Mind you, Samuel Smiles was Scottish.  And quotes from Invictus, no less.  And all rather feminist.

It’s unfortunate that, especially given that it ticks the diversity boxes (and apparently we’re all supposed to be very keen for new books to do that) in terms of religion and indeed in terms of feminism – Joan might be rather silly, but she’s determined to continue her education, and she’s determined that she’s not just going to do what the men in her family say – there’s been some controversy over this book, because of this bit. “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 civilised now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any.”

It’s one paragraph, and there is nothing else anywhere in the book about Native Americans, but the use of the word “civilised” has sparked off a lot of controversy.  This is a really difficult area.  It is a fact that many, probably the majority, of people in 1911, and before then, and indeed long after then, held views on race, religion, gender, sexuality and class which would offend most people today.  That has to be reflected in books set in the past.  It would just be silly to have a member of the plantation aristocracy in the antebellum Deep South calling for racial equality, a grandee in 16th century Castile speaking in favour of religious toleration, or even a Victorian factory worker demanding that women be paid the same as men.  It would actually be offensive in itself, because it’d be denying the struggles that different groups of people have gone through, and are still going through, to try to achieve legal and cultural equality.

However, there is a problem when the book is aimed at readers who may not be old enough to understand that, because something is in a book, and is said by a “goodie” character, that doesn’t make it right.  This book seems to be being marketed at readers aged between around 11 and 15, but I can imagine a “good” reader of 9 or 10 enjoying it.  I don’t know what the answer to this is.  I find it quite upsetting to hear that people are saying that children shouldn’t read classics by the likes of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Mark Twain, or even To Kill A Mockingbird.  Once you start censoring people’s reading, and banning books – not that it would actually be possible to ban books of which there are so many copies in circulation – then you’re on a slippery slope.  We’ve moved on from those days, and I don’t think we want to go back there.  On the other hand, I started reading the Little House books when I can’t have been more than about 7, and, whilst I honestly can’t remember what I thought about the infamous “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” comment made by Ma Ingalls when I first read it, there obviously are very serious potential problems about a child of that age taking that sort of thing in.

I don’t know what the answer is.  However, as far as this book goes, it is only that one paragraph; and there are other books which are far more appropriate examples for a debate over all this.  It does strike me, though, that there are no black characters in the book, which seems very odd given that it’s set in Baltimore.  In fact, I didn’t get much sense of Baltimore at all: it could have been set in any East Coast American city, South or North.  Then again, part of the theme of the book is that Joan/Janet doesn’t get to meet many people, or to see much of the world.  And it is a children’s book.  Sorry, a “young adult” book!   It’s not fair to expect it to be like a book aimed at adults.  Am I an adult?  Yes, I am – I forget that sometimes!

Anyway, it’s worth a go.  It does have a lot of the old-style North American girls’ book in it, and minus the preachiness.  It’s not going to become a classic, but it’s not bad, and it’s just a bit different.




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