Published by Candlewick Press on September 8th 2015
Genres: Young Adult, Historical
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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. Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz relates Joan’s journey from the muck of the chicken coop to the comforts of a society household in Baltimore (Electricity! Carpet sweepers! Sending out the laundry!), taking readers on an exploration of feminism and housework; religion and literature; love and loyalty; cats, hats, and bunions.
If I had books, if I could scrape together an education, I’d have a future, whether any man ever asked me to marry him or not.
Maybe you’ve seen this book lurking around with its high ratings and positive reviews. Maybe you’ve even noticed that it got critical acclaim, a Kirkus star, and that the author is a Newbery Medal winner. And then maybe, like me, you glanced over it quickly, took in the story about a girl trying to get hired in 1911, and quickly went off to find some fast-paced fantasy to read.
I understand. The premise of this book may not sound that compelling. But it is. Through the author’s fantastic, sympathetic portrayal of the narrator and her situation, The Hired Girl becomes a story that is charming, frustrating (in a good way) and moving.
Like some of the best books, this story comes to vivid, colourful life through the eyes of our narrator – Joan Skraggs. She is a truly wonderful character. She’s naive, clumsy and prone to misfortune, and yet also spirited and ambitious. Sometimes I have the pleasure of reading about characters that truly feel real and Joan is one of those rare examples.
With a narrative voice that is both true to the time and evidently feeling constrained by it, we are taken on a journey with Joan, through themes of feminism, religion and love. In this book, she becomes our hero. We desperately want her to succeed.
Once upon a time, Joan had a loving mother who encouraged her to read, learn, and better herself. She told Joan she could be something more than a wife, that she would never have to rely on a man. But now Joan’s mother is dead, her father has pulled her out of school to keep the house, and he has burned her beloved books. Joan is trapped and sad, but most of all, she’s determined.
So Joan runs away to Baltimore where she finds work as a parlor maid. She has to somehow try to fit in with her new Jewish family, please the old maid, and not set anything on fire. Trickier than it sounds.
I love the dynamic between Joan, the Rosenbachs, and Malka. There are many sweet and funny moments, as well as an interesting exploration of their two different religions without ever becoming preachy. Most of all, I love the genuine growth and development of Joan’s character. She changes with the novel in a way that feels realistic and natural.
A very charming historical tale.