The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz
Updated: Jan 30
"Why won't you get married?" I thought about Father and Ma. "Because I don't like being bullied," I answered. "And I want my own money. I want my own home and my own job. I guess I want my whole life for my own."
Not since The Diary of Anne Frank have I enjoyed reading the pages of a teenage girl's diary so immensely. This fictional book is written entirely from fourteen-year-old Joan Skragg's point of view. It would be a mistake to assume the simplicity of the writing made composing this novel easier for the author. It was Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlett Letter, who said, "Easy reading is damn hard writing."
The story begins on June 4, 1911 and ends on September 29, 1912. Joan is an endearing young woman, and I saw a lot of my younger self in her. Before her death, Joan's mother made it perfectly clear she wanted her daughter to become a teacher, so she could be financially independent. Joan's teachers recognized her brightness and encouraged her to keep
What I loved so much about Joan was her ability to use books to make sense of life. She often refers to characters and events she read about in novels when categorizing people and describing her experiences. Her vivid imagination reminds me of Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey.
Some readers have described Joan's antics as the typical behavior of a fourteen-year-old. This reader vehemently disagrees. Because of the loss she has suffered and the responsibilities she has had to fulfill on her family's farm, Joan is more mature than the typical teenage girl. Joan does her domestic duties as well as any woman. She continues studying long after she's been forced to drop out of school. Even Mr. Rosenbach later reflects that Joan is far more intelligent than he realized. Like Joan's teachers, he recognizes her potential and wishes his spoiled daughter Miriam was more studious like Joan. Joan's enchantment with the city is the same reaction most country bumpkins of any age would have had. Baltimore has landscaped public parks, a library, theater, street cars, and large department stores. The Rosenbach's home has modern amenities Joan is not accustomed to, such as refigerators, a carpet sweeper, a gas range, a toaster, bathrooms with indoor plumbing, and electricity on the lower floors. Joan cries a lot and crumbles rather easily at times when criticized or disappointed. I believe this behavior points to her vulnerability and youthfulness. Since her mother's death, no one, except her teacher, has expressed belief in her potential and encouraged her to study. She's very sensitive to put-downs, especially from the members of the family she sees as her saviors and refuge.
The religious discussions were, for me, the most interesting aspect of this novel. Joan is an unconfirmed Catholic when the book begins. She accepts a job as a hired girl in the home of a wealthy Jewish family. While she struggles to understand her own faith, Joan must learn to respect the faith of her employers. This is not an easy task and Joan makes a few blunders, one more serious than the others. I loved learning about the Jewish practice of Shabbos dinner. I found the blessing of the children/grandchildren and praising of the wife for all her hard work to be a beautiful custom. Mr. Rosenbach is an educated, enlightened man and shows much patience with Joan. A student of philosophy, he is not offended by her questions. It is he who tells Joan, "Religion has much to do with loyalty . . . I am as convinced of the truth of my faith, and as bound to be loyal to it, as you are to yours. I don't think either of us should turn apostate." Joan's desire to convert this Jewish family to Christianity has less to do with her age and more to do with her religious fervor, lack of worldly experience, and limited education. I know a few adults who have not learned to respect other religions.
I was satisfied with the way the story ended. At fourteen-years-old, Joan's best remedy was a good education. This reader is a hopeless romantic and must confess she secretly wished Joan had been 3-4 years older, so she could have had a love affair with the eldest Rosenbach son. I sighed when Solomon Rosenbach comforted her in the park. He was such a kind man. If she had been older, I could have easily seen the two of them falling in love later in the book, but Amy Schlitz had other plans for these characters.