BOOK REVIEW: The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
Today Miss Chandler gave me this beautiful book. I vow that I will never forget her kindness to me, and I will use this book as she told me to—that I will write in it with truth and refinement… But who could be refined living at Steeple Farm?
At fourteen, Joan Skraggs is pulled out of school. Her father deems she’s had enough education and is needed at home. The woman’s work needs to be done by someone, and since her mother’s death four years prior, there’s no-one else to cook the meals, carry the water and ashes and coal, scrub the privy, mend the clothes, do the laundry, feed the chickens and collect their eggs, pick the berries and make the jam… and she can’t have her school work getting in the way of that.
Her father says she’s done with learning. She is to carry out the woman’s work on the farm as long as she lives.
I look ahead and I don’t know how I can bear the life that’s laid out for me. Years and years of it: washing and ironing and scrubbing out the privy, cooking and scouring and feeding and mending, everything the same, day after day, season after season, working myself to death, as Ma did. Only Ma wasn’t strong. It’ll be years before the work kills me.
Joan’s father refuses her everything, even the money they make selling eggs which used to be her mother’s only income. It’s not much, but with it she would be able to buy some books and some new clothes and make her life slightly bearable. She can’t do this anymore. She can’t go her whole life without books, and learning, and adventure.
So she runs away and finds work as a maidservant for a Jewish family.
The Hired Girl is engaging in a subtle, endearing way. Upon picking it up and realising that the whole thing is told in diary format, I’ll admit I was reluctant to read it. Epistolary stories can be done amazingly well, but they can also quickly go wrong.
However, within a few pages I was hooked.
Joan is young and naive, with elements of characters brought to us by Alcott and Montgomery, but she fancies herself something of a Jane Eyre. She’s a romantic at heart, adores her books, and has a temper and logic befitting a fourteen-year-old in the early nineteen-hundreds. She does things she knows will get her in trouble, but she talks herself into believing she’s doing the right thing. She’s often frustrating, self-serving, and incredibly obstinate despite her oppressive upbringing.
And yet the reader can’t help but feel for her as she stumbles through her new life.
It’s not Joan’s fault she wasn’t allowed to finish school, or that her mother died, or that her father sees her as nothing more than a servant and fails to acknowledge any of the work she does. It’s not Joan’s fault that some of her best friends and memories are from books, and that she has limited experience within the real world.
There is a pretty big helping of religious belief in this title – mostly with Joan deciding that she needs to bring these Jewish people who so helped her to the “one true” Catholic religion, and failing to see the how hypocritical it is to ask them to give up their religion in favour of hers – and some pretty heavy and obsessive young love, but these things fit well with the time period and the age of the character, and only serve to make the story feel all the more real.
The biggest question throughout this book is just how Joan manages to keep her job so long while constantly going against the rules of her employers and getting herself into plenty of embarrassment and trouble along the way, but the reader can’t help but stay with it. By the time these things come into play, we’re already invested in Joan’s well-being.
The Hired Girl is a modern classic about making your own way in the world when you can’t cope with the hand that’s been dealt you, and finding a new kind of family in the most unlikely of places.
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