Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Hired Girl

The Hired Girl

Laura Amy Schlitz
Fiction
For ages 12 and up
Candlewick Press, 2015   ISBN: 978-0763678180

When Joan started going to school the teacher soon discovered that the little farm girl had an affinity for learning, and she told Joan’s mother how gifted her daughter was. Ma was delighted to hear this news and she encouraged Joan to work hard at her studies. She told her daughter that an education would give Joan wonderful opportunities, and the means to leave the family farm behind when she grew up.

Then Ma died when Joan was ten and the girl had to take on the job of cooking and cleaning for her father and brothers, as well as taking care of the chickens and the garden. She was allowed to stay in school for another four years but now Pa has decided that Joan’s education must come to an end. Joan is needed on the farm full time and furthering her education is not necessary.

Joan’s teacher, Miss Chandler, gives Joan a journal to write in as a going away gift, and Joan begins to write down an account of her life, though she feels it will be very hard to write much with “truth and refinement.” There is nothing refined about the life she leads on the farm. Joan’s father is a cruel, hard man, and her brothers mostly ignore her.

After Joan is injured by a cow, Miss Chandler comes to visit and she and Joan have a wonderful time. Miss Chandler brings Joan some books to read, but when Pa sees her there and sees the books he gets very angry and he sends the well-meaning teacher packing. Joan is mortified and furious. She realizes that her father wants to cut her off from the world to break her spirit. She has “no future” with a life of “drudgery” lying ahead of her.

Joan decides that what she needs, to make her life bearable, is some money, and so she asks Pa if she can have the egg money, which was the one thing he let Ma have. Pa refuses and so Joan decides that she is going to go on strike. She will only do what she must on the farm and nothing more, until Pa lets her have the egg money. For a short while Joan thinks that she is making headway, but then Pa burns her precious and beloved books. This act of cruelty is just too much and so Joan takes a drastic step; she runs away from the farm.

Using money that her mother secretly saved for her, Joan travels to Baltimore. Due to a train delay she arrives at night and has no idea where to find a lodging house that is suitable for a young woman on her own. Joan finds herself in a park and is getting ready to spend the night there when a kind young man talks to her. Joan tells him how she came to be in the park and the young man offers to take to his home. His mother might be able to help her find a suitable job as a hired girl in a respectable house. At the very least she will give Joan a bed for the night.

Mrs. Rosenbach turns out to be a kind woman who, though she is somewhat stiff, is willing to help Joan. She explains that the family housekeeper, Malka, is rather old now and needs help with the heavier housework. The problem is that Malka does not want any help and so far all the hired girls have not lasted long. If Joan can get along with Malka then perhaps she can stay and work in the Rosenbach household.

Joan soon learns that working in the home of a prosperous Jewish business man under the rule of a very opinionated old lady is not easy. She has to learn the ways of the family, which are often very foreign to her, but at least here she is paid, and she is also treated with kindness. When he hears that Joan likes to read, Mr. Rosenbach gives her permission to read the books in his well-stocked library, which is a real gift as far as Joan is concerned. In addition to have access to books, Joan can now buy nice clothes for herself using the money she earns. Her life is certainly a lot better than it was, but Joan still manages to get in trouble.

This wonderful novel was inspired by the author’s grandmother’s journal, and the narrative is beautifully crafted and touched with moments of humor and poignancy. Joan’s voice takes readers back in time to the beginning of the 1900’s when young working class women had few choices in life. We see how hard it was for a young, single woman to build a life for herself, and we come to appreciate Joan’s desperation to get an education. With an education Joan will finally be able to become financially independent and free to choose her own path in life.

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