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.
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.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was its realism. It doesn’t seek to gloss over some of the harsh realities of life in 1911, like the absolute backbreaking labour required in doing laundry and keeping rugs clean and scrubbing out a coal-burning stove. Nor does it gloss over the fact that there are unsavory characters out there, like a guy who tries to molest Joan on the trip into Baltimore before she lands at the home of the Rosenbachs and reinvents herself as Janet Lovelace. One of the plot points involved is that Joan is a Catholic, and wants to continue her religious instruction and take communion, but she works for a Jewish family. They are very kind to her, even as she admits beyond what she probably deserves as she continues to screw up, but she’s still torn between her religious convictions and what she sees as a foreign religion. There’s a particular cringeworthy episode when she tries to teach the Rosenbach’s four-year-old grandson about Jesus, and is nearly axed over it.
I think the religious aspect of it is a really interesting one and one that isn’t particularly popular or trendy in YA fiction right now, but it adds a lot of depth to the novel. Since it’s written journal-style, there’s plenty of space for Joan to go back and forth about her religious studies while she’s learning about Judaism from her employers. It isn’t sentimental or tacky, but it rings as very true-to-life for a period where religion was a far, far bigger influence than it is now or is usually credited as being then. It’s handled very well, and even when you can see Joan screwing up, you can see where she’s coming from and the mistakes she makes are due to her ignorance and country upbringing rather than malice. She is at heart a good person, and she tries hard, so it’s hard to watch her continually make mistake after mistake, but it’s realistic for a klutzy fourteen-year-old trying to pass herself off as eighteen. (Actually, anyone who’s ever been fourteen and wouldn’t do it again for a million dollars would understand and cringe at all of this. It’s painfully realistic for anyone who’s been there and couldn’t stop screwing up, i.e., “was a teenager.”)
Another part that’s handled really well is Joan’s crush on one of the household’s sons, David, who is a twenty-one-year artist. Joan poses for a sketch of a painting for him, and is totally taken with him. She’s desperately in love with him and wonders if she could change religions for him, and it’s wonderfully, achingly painful for anyone who’s been a teenager and really, truly, honestly believed themselves in love with someone who didn’t know they were alive or couldn’t have cared less. And I really enjoy that the romance itself is a subplot, not the A-plot, and that it doesn’t totally overwhelm the story. It’s not a romance novel, it’s not even a YA romance, it’s just a story about a girl trying to find her place who screws up a lot both in her professional and private lives and gets them both mixed together when she shouldn’t.
I love to see a great YA novel that doesn’t have any aspect of magic or wizardry or vampires or anything in it, since those seem to be the most popular novels being published right now. It’s a lovely change, and this is a great and realistic book. It doesn’t go overboard with any of it—either the love story or the drudgery or anything else—but a nicely balanced and imaginative story.
Rating: A. I didn’t think I was going to rate it this highly! But I genuinely enjoyed it far more than I thought I would have. I loved the characters—a realistic blend of good and bad and every other character trait you care to mention, all fleshed out nicely. Schlitz has a real eye for detail that makes everything seem to pop, and the sensory details are fantastic. Really splendid. The story is nicely put together and there’s enough plot to carry it along without feeling rushed or forced, and it’s generally a well-done and well-told story that I really hope will be a great success.