The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz
Pub. Date: September 8, 2015
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, Candlewick Press!)
Summary: Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs, just like the heroines in her beloved novels, yearns for real life and true love. But what hope is there for adventure, beauty, or art on a hardscrabble farm in Pennsylvania where the work never ends? Over the summer of 1911, Joan pours her heart out into her diary as she seeks a new, better life for herself—because maybe, just maybe, a hired girl cleaning and cooking for six dollars a week can become what a farm girl could only dream of—a woman with a future.
Genre: YA, Historical Fiction, Religious Fiction, Romance
Fourteen-year-old Joan lives for reading. While she might not have much – and in all honesty, what farm family does? – she has a few cherished books that she constantly revisits time and time again. After her father pulls her out of school to take over the housework (Joan’s mother recently passed) she doesn’t feel her life could get any worse. …until the day her father burns her books for daring to ask for a few dollars. Refusing to stay under his roof a moment longer, Joan secretly plans her escape and runs away from her tiny community in Pennsylvania to Baltimore where she hopes to find work and carve out a life of her own. A life that doesn’t include chicken coops.
Sounds interesting, right? Yeah I thought so too. And you know what? For the first part it was! Then we took a severe detour and I have no idea what happened, the book went in a completely different direction and I couldn’t be more disappointed.
You see, Joan is all of fourteen. Yet she’s easily able to convince a strange man she’s eighteen (and that her name is Janet Lovelace) and he invites her back to his home where he says he’ll convince his mother to hire her own as a kind of life-in maid. She soon discovers this family is Jewish and I started feeling a little queasy. I had every finger crossed, hoping this wouldn’t turn out bad. I’m no stranger to religious fiction and in fact enjoy it a good deal, but Janet’s new-found fervor seriously put me off. Her mother had been a practicing Catholic before she passed and was the only member of the family to hold any faith. Janet decides she wants to become Catholic and the family gives her Tuesday afternoons off in order to receive instruction from the local priest. All well and good. What didn’t sit well with me was that Janet decided she would convert the family to Christianity. The way Janet discusses Judaism and the Rosenbachs was extremely uncomfortable too:
I don’t mean that in an anti-Semitic kind of way, because the Jews are good and noble-hearted and love God.
She was overjoyed to hear from me, but I think she is a little prejudiced, because she’s worried that the Rosenbachs are educating me so they can convert me to Judaism…Maybe she’ll let me teach her about the goodness of the Jews.
The entire book was full of little mentions of how – gasp! – Jewish families are just like everyone else! Perhaps I’m taking it a bit too personally, but Janet’s constant remarks did not go over well with me.
The other issue I had was with the love interest. Because of course there’s a love interest. And of course it’s one of the sons. Differences in social status is one of my all-time favorite tropes, but it fell flat here. Also, I felt more than a little icky: David is going on 21. Janet is 14. As it turns out, spoiler alert! he was never interested in her and simply ‘kissed her accidentally.’ Whoops! Of course by this time Janet was madly in love to the point where she began saying things like:
My love for him was so pure that I wanted to give him everything, even if I lost myself.
“Oh, David, don’t you see? You’d still be free, because we wouldn’t be married. And nobody would blame you. They’d blame me, because they always blame the girl. I’d be the one taking the risk, and I don’t care about being depraved, because it doesn’t feel depraved, not when we’re in love-“
The one bright spot in The Hired Girl was that Janet wasn’t a dainty, wispy girl. She grew up on a farm and had the body to show for it. She had rough, calloused hands, square shoulders, and a thick neck. That said, she kept being referred to as an ox.
Don’t waste your time with this one.