Friday, October 2, 2015

The Hired Girl

The Hired Girl
Laura Amy Schlitz
Candlewick, 2015
Grades 7-Up
Historical Fiction

Written in diary format, Newery Medal winning Schlitz pens the life of a young girl struggling for survival and identity one hundred years in America's past. Fourteen-year-old Joan is forced to leave school, which she loves, and work on her family farm with her abusive father and indifferent brothers. Joan's mother hid some money for her before she died and this is what Joan uses as she escapes her life and travels to Baltimore. Once there, she has nowhere to go and is taken in by the Rosenbach family as a "hired girl" or general maid for $6 a week plus room and board. Joan changes her name to Janet and reinvents herself as a working eighteen -year-old. Janet is no stranger to hard work and finds the job no problem. More troublesome is learning to get along with the elderly housekeeper and finding her place in the family, especially as she begins to make friends with the daughter, who is her age, and starting to develop feelings for the Rosenbach's son, David. Meanwhile, Janet rediscovers her catholic roots and begins to attend mass and catechism classes with the priest in order to reclaim her faith and feel closer to her deceased mother. This becomes confusing living in a traditional Jewish household and Janet learns to respect the faiths of others all while embracing that of her own. Janet's feelings for David escalate as he uses her as a model for his painting, takes her to the opera, and eventually kisses her. By book's end Janet's secrets are revealed to the Rosenbach's family, leading to a satisfying, yet realistic ending.

Writing for an older audience and much more readable than her previous and critically acclaimed works, Schlitz offers us a historic and social account based on the real life experiences of her grandmother. The diary format allows for intimacy and helps the reader to become fully immersed in the hopes, dreams, and life experiences of a young girl with completely foreign experiences to modern young people. Janet takes nothing for granted. She is naive and innocent. Electricity, plumbing, books, entertainment, education, and even going to church are luxuries she is used to living without. Her life in Baltimore offers her many new opportunities, including the freedom to read with a library full of books at her fingertips, a morning and afternoon off from work, spending money, and the permission to practice the religion handed down to her by her mother. Religion is not a topic often explored in books for young people and when it is, it is often in a negative light. Schlitz honestly presents Janet's religious experience as a choice and comfort. We also see Janet learning to respect Judaism and standing up to antisemitism. Social class structure of the day, women's roles, and discrimination are all themes that are featured. The book itself is a decent length and reads quickly. Because of the diary format, it will appeal to reluctant readers. The interesting cover will draw readers in and Janet's passions and courage will keep them turning pages. The book does not end perfectly for Janet, but ends in the best way realistically possible and on a hopeful note. Fans of Downton Abbey in particular will enjoy reading The Hired Girl.

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