The Hired Girl

I don’t usually review new books here, but I’m going to do this one now because I thought it was fantastic, and hey, things are slow right now, so why not?

The Hired Girl, Laura Amy Schlitz, 2015.

the hired girl

Now, I’m not going to recap this one, since it’s so new I don’t want to give away any of the details, but I’m going to do a short review of it in general. Laura Amy Schlitz won the Newbery Medal for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! and a Newbery Honor for Splendors and Glooms, so her pedigree is already fairly well established, but The Hired Girl is a bit of a departure from all this. It’s set in 1911, and it’s targeted at the 11-14 age group, but it plays pretty heavily on some themes in literature and art that may go over the heads of younger readers. But for someone like me, reading it as an adult, it’s fascinatingly well-done, though I don’t know how I would have taken it as a 13-year-old.

Joan Skraggs, the titular hired girl, is a fourteen-year-old girl in Pennsylvania, living with her semi-abusive father and three sloppy older brothers, none of whom respect her. She’s been doing the household work since her mother’s death years ago, and she’s exhausted from doing a ridiculous amount of heavy labour by herself without any sort of compensation or a kind word from anyone. She’s had to drop out of school, and finds solace in reading her three books over and over again. When her father burns her books, Joan decides that’s the last straw, and takes the little bit of money her mother left her in secret and runs away to Baltimore to become a hired maid at six dollars a week.

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Christmas After All

Second and last in the “Christmas Dear America” series, let’s go for a Dear America book that is unlike any other I’ve ever read, and not necessarily in a good way? Is that a good thing? I don’t know, let’s find out.

Christmas After All: The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1932, Kathryn Lasky, 2001.

minnie swift

(Yes, I know it was reissued with a new cover, but I love this cover and I loathe the new ones, so I’m choosing to ignore it.)

For starters, I don’t want to be too harsh on this book because it’s based on Kathryn Lasky’s real-life family. The characters are named after Lasky’s mother, aunts, and uncle, and the house is their real-life 1930s house. I love, love, love it when authors use their own stories and family history to enrich books, because it’s always so fascinating and cool to see a sort of real personal connection in a way not all books have. And real life is stranger and more wonderful than anything any fiction author could dream up, I believe, anyhow.

Minnie Swift is twelve years old and lives in Indianapolis, and as a native Midwesterner myself, I adore books that are set in the Midwest not for any special reason (i.e., the Midwesternness is not a plot point), but it just is and it’s totally normal and great. She has three older sisters and a younger brother, all with amazing names—Gwendolen (Gwen), Clementine (Clem), Adelaide (Lady), and Oswald (Ozzie). At first, Minnie is complaining that she has to share a room with Lady, because her parents are closing off more rooms to save money on heating in December—because it’s the Depression and, as you may have heard, money is a little bit tight.

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When Christmas Comes Again

It’s December and officially the Christmas season, so let’s do the two Christmas-themed Dear Americas! This book differs from most of the others in several ways, but it’s still interesting and well-done.

Book: When Christmas Comes Again: The World War One Diary of Simone Spencer, New York City to the Western Front, 1917, Beth Seidel Levine, 2002.

simone spencer

In order to write a novel about a girl involved in the army, she had to be quite a bit older, so Simone is seventeen at the outset of the novel (compared to the average Dear America protagonist, who is eleven, twelve, or thirteen, and very occasionally older). This is also one of those rare DA novels about a wealthy, upper-class girl—the vast majority of them focus on girls who are poor or middle-class, I would assume for relatability reasons among the majority of readers. Actually, very interestingly, another one is A Time For Courage, which also takes place in 1917, in a strange coincidence that I think was probably not intended.

Anyway, Simone is “society” indeed, thanks to her incredibly wealthy father, and a bit bored of things. She doesn’t know what she wants to do after graduating high school, but now since war has just been declared, it adds an “exciting” bustle to things. Simone’s mother is French and owns a chapelier, or hat shop, because she was bored to tears and refused to sit around doing nothing and presumably, being society all day. Simone’s mother was a humble girl in a bake shop in Paris when her father met her, and Simone has grown up on stories about Paris and true love, fate, etc., which is going to come back to be important.

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Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor

You can draw a direct line between this book and every girl who burned through the collected works of Philippa Gregory like they were written in cocaine.

Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor, England, 1544, Kathryn Lasky, 1999.

elizabeth I

This is the first and most famous of the entire series, and if the library copy I have in my hands is any indicator, it’s VERY well-loved. It’s so hard to write a Tudor story that isn’t incredibly overdone or overly reliant on the sex-and-intrigue conventions of the genre (hey, Philippa Gregory!), but focusing on a YA aspect gives it a really interestingly fresh perspective. Lasky doesn’t shy away from the worse aspects of the court (as mentioned, the sex/intrigue/nonstop plotting), but she downplays it enough to make it palatable for an audience of 11-year-olds who are probably getting their first introduction to a non-school discussion of Elizabeth I.

Lasky does a nice job of creating an Elizabeth who is intelligent and sensible without being precocious or overly-crafty. At eleven, she spends a lot of time worrying about whether her father loves her (a pretty understandable problem when your father is famous for killing people who irritate him), given that he keeps exiling her and then bringing her back to court over and over again. She bounces back between wondering if her father is totally in his right mind (a treasonous thought!) and loving him very much indeed. She spends most of her time with Kat, her governess, and on-and-off with the other royal “children” (in quotes because Princess Mary is twenty-eight, but still classified as a child) and their tutors. At the outset, Elizabeth is at Greenwich Palace, since one of the king’s frequent desires to forget her has given way to his new queen’s wishes. Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth and final wife, is smart and has a tremendous interest in Elizabeth’s studies—unlike her other “mothers.”

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Gwyneth and the Thief

I don’t know what I expected from a book that literally has “An Avon True Romance For Teens” listed right on the cover, but I gave it a good shot. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

Gwyneth and the Thief, Margaret Moore, 2002.

gwyneth

There was a general trend in the late 90s and early 2000s to have lots of historical fiction and light historical romance all over the YA fiction section, just like how today that section is overwhelmingly dominated by fantasy and urban fantasy and novels about socialites, also sometimes involving fantasy. Most of these were written by romance novelists and have a pretty varying level of quality—the execrable Miranda and the Warrior was in this series, as was Samantha and the Cowboy, but there’s also two charming entries by Meg Cabot and a really good one by Beverly Jenkins about a black couple in the 1850s that I’m really pleased made the cut among the rest of white-white-white novels.

Unfortunately, this is one of the worse novels in the “series.” Margaret Moore is an entirely competent writer, but her entire oeuvre consists of bodice-rippers in the 80s and 90s tradition, with covers that feature women in dresses that are falling down and men with either no shirts on or very fancy clothing. Usually they have something to do with Scotland. This book is really just a historical romance novel that’s had the more explicit parts expunged. That takes a lot of the interest out of it, honestly.

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