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, as part of a blog tour through the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries

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. 

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. 

MHM: The diary for­mat enables the read­er to see much of what makes Joan tick. It also helps us appre­ci­ate her incred­i­ble sense of humor. Did you plan from the out­set to use this for­mat or did you con­sid­er telling the sto­ry in anoth­er way?

LAS: I intend­ed to write the book as a diary from the very begin­ning. I was com­ing off anoth­er book, Splen­dors and Glooms, which had five pro­tag­o­nists and mul­ti­ple points of view. I promised myself that if I ever escaped from Splen­dors and Glooms, I would write a book from a sin­gle point of view. 

My deci­sion coin­cid­ed with a spe­cial gift from a stu­dent at the Park School, where I work. A child named Lance (he is a young man now) gave me a blank book as a Christ­mas present. It had a leather cov­er, thick creamy pages, and a rib­bon mark­er. It was almost too beau­ti­ful to spoil with writ­ing, but I thought, I’m going to write in it any­way; I’m going to write straight through. Writ­ing in that book helped me remem­ber that the sto­ry was a diary. I wrote eas­i­ly and spon­ta­neous­ly. I think Joan’s humor is a reflec­tion of my joy when the words came so quickly. 

MHM: The his­to­ry of the era comes vivid­ly to life in the pages of the book, from Joan’s farm life to the vibrant Bal­ti­more Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of the time. What kinds of research did you do to make the peri­od details feel so right?

LAS: I began the book know­ing the peri­od fair­ly well, because I set a pre­vi­ous nov­el, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, in 1909. I had gen­er­al books on the peri­od: books about hous­es and cloth­ing and Vic­to­ri­an Amer­i­ca. But I need­ed a lot of spe­cif­ic research — espe­cial­ly about domes­tic tech­nol­o­gy, because Joan does so much house­work. Mrs. Esther Levy’s Jew­ish Cook­ery Book was a great help to me in plan­ning meals and fig­ur­ing out how to keep the meat and milk dish­es separate.

Daniel E. Sutherland’s Amer­i­cans and Their Ser­vants was help­ful, because Amer­i­cans dif­fered from Eng­lish­men in their view of domes­tic ser­vice — the very term hired girl” is an Amer­i­can euphemism meant to dis­tin­guish the paid labor­er from the slave. Anoth­er book that helped me with Joan’s place in the work­force was Nan Enstad’s Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adven­ture: Work­ing Women, Pop­u­lar Cul­ture, and Labor Pol­i­tics at the Turn of the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry.

For local his­to­ry, I was great­ly indebt­ed to Isaac M. Fein’s The Mak­ing of an Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty: The His­to­ry of Bal­ti­more Jew­ry from 1773 to 1920. I also used Ger­ald Sorin’s The Jew­ish Peo­ple in Amer­i­ca and Philip Kahn’s Uncom­mon Threads: Threads That Wove the Fab­ric of Bal­ti­more Jew­ish Life. I was lucky enough to find a his­to­ry book from 1910, The Jews of Bal­ti­more, by Isador Blum. 

I bought a sheaf of women’s mag­a­zines from 1900 at a yard sale — they were help­ful for peri­od details. I con­sult­ed my grandmother’s girl­hood diary from 1912. One valu­able resource was a fac­sim­i­le 1908 cat­a­log from Sears Roe­buck, which told me what things cost — mon­ey is of course impor­tant to Joan, because before she joined the Rosen­bach house­hold, she nev­er had any.

MHM: Can you tell us a bit more about the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty you describe? Are any of the char­ac­ters in the book from that com­mu­ni­ty based on peo­ple who real­ly lived there? 

LAS: I first became aware of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty around Reser­voir Hill when three of my friends — Hillary Jacobs, Julie Schwait, and Michelle Feller-Kop­man — were research­ing a Cen­ten­ni­al his­to­ry of the Park School, where I’ve worked for 25 years. I knew that it had been found­ed as a pro­gres­sive school for Jew­ish and­Chris­t­ian chil­dren, but I hadn’t known much about the founders. Many of them were Ger­man Jews, and some of them lived in Eutaw Place. As my three friends explored the archives, they showed me doc­u­ments, let­ters, pho­tographs, and ephemera. Their enthu­si­asm was con­ta­gious, and I took to dri­ving around Eutaw Place in search of a house for Joan to clean.

This is as good a time as any to remind my read­ers that The Hired Girl is a work of fic­tion. I tried to make it as accu­rate as pos­si­ble, but I took full advan­tage of the mag­i­cal pow­ers with which all sto­ry­tellers are endowed. For exam­ple, I placed a park bench where I’m pret­ty sure there wasn’t one. I con­jured up heat waves and thun­der­storms with­out con­sult­ing the Nation­al Weath­er Ser­vice. And I cre­at­ed the Colum­bia Par­nas­sus Tour­ing Com­pa­ny with one stroke of my mag­ic wand — though the Acad­e­my of Music was real. The Rosen­bachs were not real peo­ple. But like the founders of the Park School, they were cul­ti­vat­ed, intel­lec­tu­al, and for­ward thinking. 

MHM: What do you think will hap­pen to Joan as she con­tin­ues her jour­ney into the big, wide world and expands her edu­ca­tion? Will her nat­ur­al warmth lead her to toward estab­lish­ing her own family? 

LAS: At the end of every nov­el, I lead my char­ac­ters up a hill where they can see down in every direc­tion. From there, they can choose where to go next. If I’ve left them in a promis­ing place, I feel I’ve done my job, and I bid them Godspeed. 

Joan has some inter­est­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties to explore. After grad­u­a­tion, she could become a teacher or a librar­i­an, two fields that were open to women at that time; she might go on to col­lege; she may well become a writer — she cer­tain­ly spends a lot of time scrib­bling. I don’t know whether she’ll mar­ry or not. She’s ardent and roman­tic, but she also grew up see­ing what a mis­er­able busi­ness mar­riage can be. My guess is that if she mar­ries, she’ll find her pro­fes­sion first.

I wor­ry a lit­tle bit about my dear Rosen­bachs, because World War I is on the way. The Ger­man her­itage of which Mrs. Rosen­bach is so proud is about to become a lia­bil­i­ty. I don’t want David or Sol­ly to have to fight in the trench­es, but I’m not sure they’ll be able to escape it. (I ought to have had more fore­sight and giv­en them flat feet.) If David sur­vives the war, he’ll prob­a­bly become a pret­ty good soci­ety painter, though he might not be quite as tal­ent­ed as Joan thinks he is. 

Mimi will def­i­nite­ly run the depart­ment store. 

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is a retired librar­i­an and edi­tor of ref­er­ence books. She is Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s edi­tor on books for young readers.

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.