The Hired Girl

  • By Laura Amy Schlitz
  • Candlewick Press
  • 400 pp.
  • Reviewed by Caroline Bock
  • December 2, 2015

This satisfying tale of faith, acceptance, and growing up offers plenty for teen readers to enjoy.

The Hired Girl, by Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz, brims with empathy and self-discovery. This YA novel tells the story of 14-year-old Joan Skraggs, a Pennsylvania farm girl who desperately wants a future with more promise than the one her widowed father and older brothers and their hardscrabble farm can offer.

Told in a series of expansive diary entries, the first-person narrative opens on June 4, 1911, with Joan noting that the journal in which she is writing is a present from her beloved teacher, Miss Chandler. The journal is a parting gift — Joan must leave school to take charge of all the women’s work on the farm.  

What gives her courage is the memory of her mother, who wanted a better life for Joan, wanted her to become a schoolteacher, one of the highest possible positions for a woman at that time. In addition to the journal and a hand-made doll from her mother, Joan’s most prized possessions are three novels: Jane Eyre, Dombey and Son, and Ivanhoe.

However, when her father derides her as an “ox of a girl” and burns her books in a fit of anger, she decides she must leave the farm. Knowing her mother had sewn a few dollars into her treasured doll, Joan sets out on the train to Baltimore.

After a brief run-in with a fellow male traveler with less than honorable intentions, Joan is saved from sleeping on a park bench in Baltimore by Solomon Rosenbach, the eldest son of a well-to-do Jewish-American family.

She lies about her name and age, not trusting him. However, after a week’s trial, his mother offers her a servant’s position at the very decent wage of six dollars per week. Her job is to assist the family’s aged servant, Malka. Initially, Malka is wary about hiring on a gentile into their very particular Jewish household, but hardworking Joan soon impresses her.

Joan, a Catholic, knows little of her own religion and almost nothing about Judaism. Her struggle to understand her faith and the history and faith of the Rosenbachs is one of the rewarding parts of the novel. However, what ultimately brings them together is their mutual love of learning and books, which transcends their differences.  

There are some melodramatic plot turns in The Hired Girl. Joan believes that she is being helpful meddling in the personal affairs of members of the family, and sometimes she is, while other times she is sharply rebuffed. A brief, chaste kiss or two with David, the artistic Rosenbach son, blows up into a full discussion of faith and marriage and forces Joan to think about what she really wants in life. The last entry in the journal is September 29, 1912 — the novel spans just over a year — but the future will be bright and full of hope for Joan.

The more jaded or dystopian-leaning teen reader may be cynical about the lessons of mutual respect learned by Joan as she comes of age in the early 20th century. However, what she learns is heartfelt empathy and compassion, told in prose that resonates with insight into what brings all of us — Americans of different faiths and backgrounds — together. This novel is a gift to the young teens of this century.

Caroline Bock is author of the critically acclaimed young-adult novels LIE and Before My Eyes, both from St. Martin's Press.

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