The Hired Girl

Lau­ra Amy Schlitz
  • Review
By – December 17, 2015

Joan Skrag­gs, liv­ing a rough, hard­scrab­ble life on a Penn­syl­va­nia farm with an abu­sive father and unsym­pa­thet­ic broth­ers, aspires to a bet­ter life. She loves lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture, although her expo­sure to the fin­er points of each has been lim­it­ed and basic. When her cold, heart­less father tells her that her edu­ca­tion is at an end and burns her only books, the trea­sures of her soul, Joan runs away and lands for­tu­itous­ly at the home of a wealthy Jew­ish fam­i­ly as a maid, or as she styles it a hired girl.” Sud­den­ly her vis­tas open and her life seems filled with adven­ture and pos­si­bil­i­ty. Joan’s spunky, car­ing and open per­son­al­i­ty make her a hero­ine to care deeply about as she pro­ceeds to grow from an une­d­u­cat­ed bump­kin with an avid curios­i­ty, roman­tic nature and kind heart into a refined young woman with a rich and pro­duc­tive life ahead. The Rosen­bachs, the Bal­ti­more Jew­ish fam­i­ly for whom she works, are well ensconced in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and the read­er, along with Joan, learns much about the Jew­ish soci­ety of the ear­ly 1900s in that part of the coun­try. The Rosen­bach fam­i­ly mem­bers are drawn by the author with care. Each fam­i­ly mem­ber has a set of very human flaws but there is great warmth, as well. They see spe­cial qual­i­ties in this young girl and each in his or her own way man­ages to help Joan over­come cir­cum­stances and the grow­ing pains of youth. 

A quin­tes­sen­tial por­trait of Amer­i­ca and all it has stood for since its found­ing, this book encap­su­lates hope for the down­trod­den, the flu­id­i­ty of class in the New World, and the poten­tial for those with tal­ent and grit to rise above their hum­ble begin­nings and shine. But in spite of these lofty themes, this feels noth­ing like a trea­tise. It’s a fun book to read and a page-turn­er as the heroine’s quirky and charm­ing per­son­al­i­ty makes the read­er eager to see what her next escapade can pos­si­bly be.

The writ­ing is sub­lime and humor abounds. The char­ac­ters seem as real as one’s own fam­i­ly and the his­tor­i­cal con­text is inter­est­ing and dimen­sion­al. Fine art has its moment here, as well. Sev­er­al well-known can­vas­es or sculp­tures which Joan might have seen dur­ing the time peri­od are used as themes to sep­a­rate the var­i­ous sec­tions of the story.

An unusu­al nov­el, bril­liant­ly exe­cut­ed, this book is well worth the reader’s time and will not be eas­i­ly for­got­ten.
High­ly rec­om­mend­ed for ages 12 and up.

Inter­view with Lau­ra Amy Schlitz

with Michal Hoschan­der Malen

Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and Lau­ra Amy Schlitz sat down to talk about Laura’s young adult nov­el The Hired Girl which recent­ly won both the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award and the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen: Joan is a char­ac­ter absolute­ly burst­ing with per­son­al­i­ty, charm, wit and exu­ber­ance. Did you mod­el her on any­one in life or in literature?

Lau­ra Amy Schlitz: No, I didn’t — in fact, I sel­dom base a major char­ac­ter on any­one I know. When I begin a nov­el, I know I’m going to spend a lot of time with the peo­ple in it, so I like to begin by not know­ing them too well. That way, there are mys­ter­ies to solve. Curios­i­ty helps me to keep writing.

MHM: Joan is remark­ably free of prej­u­dice, unusu­al in her time (and in any oth­er). She is also very open to the world around her and able to learn from a vari­ety of peo­ple and expe­ri­ences, also a strug­gle for many young peo­ple. Joan devel­ops these char­ac­ter­is­tics in spite of a sin­gu­lar­ly harsh youth. Do you think young read­ers can sub­tly learn some­thing from this? 

LAS: Now here I dis­agree with you: I think Joan shares many of the prej­u­dices of her time. Joan is a girl of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, a time when reli­gious prej­u­dice and eth­nic stereo­types were rife. Ear­ly in the book, for exam­ple, Joan takes pride in telling Mal­ka that her fore­bears were Scot­tish and Ger­man, not Irish; she shares the wide­ly held belief that the Irish were infe­ri­or. When she first meets Kit­ty, Anna’s Irish cook, she observes that her kitchen is spot­less, and dis­cards her belief that the Irish are dirty. 

And while sim­i­lar prej­u­dices and stereo­types of the time make Joan’s love for David is tru­ly for­bid­den and her friend­ship with the Rosen­bachs is tri­umphant, Joan is large­ly insu­lat­ed from anti­semitism in the coun­try. She lives in a very small world, and most of what she knows about the Jews – or thinks she knows – comes from Ivan­hoe and the Bible. When she first meets the Rosen­bachs, she’s depen­dent on them for a safe place to sleep. By the time she dis­cov­ers that they’re Jew­ish, she has already been won over by Solly’s kind­ness and Mrs. Rosenbach’s ele­gance. The Rosen­bachs are the kind of peo­ple Joan aspires to be: cul­ti­vat­ed, lit­er­ary, and — this is impor­tant to Joan — fash­ion­ably dressed.

If Joan is admirable, it’s because she thinks for her­self. She has prej­u­dices, but they aren’t deep-root­ed, and she’s not psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly dri­ven to despise oth­ers. I try not to think didac­ti­cal­ly when I write a sto­ry, but I would be delight­ed if young read­ers sought to emu­late Joan by see­ing the world for themselves. 

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Relat­ed Content:

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

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