The Hired Girl

I’m going to let you in on a secret (which is really not so much a secret as a fact which is uninteresting to people who aren’t me): I love novels with strong, introspective female narrators.  Let’s just run through some of them: there’s Vicky Austin in Madeleine L’Engle’s novels (A Ring of Endless LightTroubling a Star), Catherine in Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, Judy in Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, and Cassandra in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  All of these have been favourites of mine for years, and all have in common that they’re told, through one mechanism or another, as st0ries from the first-person perspective of the female narrator.  They also have in common that the narrator in question is deeply reflective, keenly intelligent, and often a little willful.  I love them all like old friends, and now I have a new novel to add to the list: The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, whose narrator, Joan Skraggs, is quite as intelligent and introspective as any of these earlier narrators.

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There’s a really nice review of it from the New York Times which you can read over here, and which will give you a quick glimpse of what it’s like to read a book guided by someone like Joan.  I would add, though, that part of what makes Joan such a fascinating guide is that not only does she build her own story throughout the book, but that she’s remarkably gifted at drawing characters: her father, each of her brothers, her mother, and her teachers all come to life in the early part of the book.  After she runs away from home, her new employers and their entire family take centre stage, and she, as much a director of a drama as protagonist in a novel, deftly sketches each of them.

But you haven’t yet read the book, so let’s talk a bit about what goes on with this varied cast of characters.  Joan Skraggs is fourteen years old in 1911, her mother is dead, and her father is tyrannical, just literate enough to run his farm without seeing the use of further education– not for himself, and certainly not for his daughter.  And so, at fourteen, forbidden from attending school, she suddenly finds herself without future prospects.  After her father burns her only books, she’s spurred to action and plans her escape to Baltimore, where she hopes to find a position as a hired girl: $6/week seems a fortune to her, and surely she’d be able to make more of a life for herself on such a princely salary.  And so she escapes, and, after a series of adventures, the Catholic Joan, now going by the name Janet Lovelace, finds herself the hired girl for a Jewish family, the Rosenbachs.

The Rosenbachs are just transitioning into the fashionable Reform Jewish world of educated German Jews in America, and, as they figure out their own Jewishness (they frequently run into conflict with the more traditional Malka, the beautifully-drawn old housekeeper for the family), so, too, Joan has to figure them out, and figure out her own place as a Catholic in their household.  The consequence is a series of occasional conflicts: when Malka sees that Joan has hung her mother’s crucifix in her bedroom she’s horrified, and Joan has to learn that to someone of Malka’s age and history the crucifix is a symbol of pogroms, not of peaceful personal religious observance.  Learning of anti-Semitism is a painful process for young Joan, and so is recognizing the symptoms of it in her religious mentor, Father Horst.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this process throughout the novel is seeing how Joan represents each of these new figures in her life.  After leaving her family behind, Joan is bereft of mother, father, and siblings.  Her escape to Baltimore shows her to us in two lights: on the one hand, she’s all independence now, and making her own way; on the other hand, she’s constantly looking at her new acquaintance as, in a sense, her new family.  Having lost a loving mother, she has a rather tense relationship with Mrs. Rosenbach, who is generous but inflexible.  But the revelation to her is Mr. Rosenbach (“Little Moritz” to the old housekeeper, Malka), who, when he hears of her longing to read, orders Joan a new kimono so that she’ll be able to read in the evenings in the comfort of the library after her work is done.  How could a father be so kind?  And Father Horst, who encourages her to ask questions and even owns up to his mistake after Joan reproaches him for his anti-Semitism, is a different kind of revelation to her: just imagine a Father (or father!) who takes ownership of his errors!

Our eyes are opened to different types of characters along with Joan’s, and our reflections as to what is right and what is wrong and what is a bit more subtle and complicated move along with hers.  We sympathize with her, we groan at her errors, we worry for her.  But, ultimately, and in this I am strongly reminded of I Capture the Castle, we are concerned less about the actual sequence of the story and much more about Joan’s day-t0-day relationships with the other characters she meets: “Tell us more about you and Mimi,” I silently beg her.  “I want to know whether you make up that quarrel.”

In that sense, this is a book about family, about relationships between people, about faults and forgiveness and kindness.  As such, this is an absolutely fantastic YA novel: perfect for an age where people wonder about just such themes.  And it’s fantastic for older readers, too; after all, who exactly stops wondering about family, about relationships, and about faults and forgiveness and kindness?  I know it was interesting to me, and I strongly suspect that it would be interesting to you, too.  Take a look and let me know what you think!

First Snow

It’s cold today.  Yesterday was warm beyond belief for December in Boston, but today is cold, and a few days ago we had our first real snow of the season.  All of that means that I’m finally feeling winter arrive, if a bit tenuously, and I just got my daughter a book which fits the feeling of the season: First Snow, by Bomi Park.  First Snow.jpg

I was inspired to pick this book up because the cover reminded me so strongly of a perennial favourite in this house, The Tea Party in the Woods.  Feast your eyes on that soft black and white with occasional pops of colour in the child’s red scarf and the cat’s fur.  The whole book is that lovely, and, if you want to be really infuriated, please note that this is Bomi Park’s debut book (first published in Sourth Korea in 2012, and just now brought to the American market by, you guessed it, Chronicle Books).  I think it’s entirely unfair that such a lovely book is her first, but, on the other hand, I’m so smitten with it that I’m just glad it exists.

The story is very, very simple.  A little girl is lying in bed when she hears something go “pit, pit, pit” against the window.  Snow is falling.  She quickly gets dressed and sneaks out into the snowy night.  She begins to shape the snow into a ball, and then rolls it to make it bigger (remember how to do that?).  She rolls it through her yard, through her town, through fields, past a train, through the woods, until she arrives somewhere– somewhere special with other children all rolling snowballs, building snowmen, and simply enjoying the first snow.  And that’s the story: just a girl playing with the snow.

It’s a beautiful balancing act between the very real, very tangible delights of first snow and a rather magical idealization of children playing in the snow.  On the one hand, what is more real than children bundling up and rushing outside to pat and roll snowballs when winter first arrives?  On the other hand, somewhere along the way there’s a turn for the more-than-real: our little girl goes rolling her snowball through the woods until she sees a bright light and breaks through into a snowy landscape where all the other children are also enjoying the snow.  It never stops being realistic, in one sense.  After all, it’s simply children playing in the snow.  In another sense, however, it’s consistently mysterious.  From the very beginning, starting with a girl waking in the night, we get the impression of a dream landscape, and so a magical journey is no more unexpected than in, for example, The Nutcracker.  And yet there’s no journey to the Land of the Sweets in our book; from our girl’s backyard to the forests, it’s all a journey through snow.  In other words, it never stops being realistic, even though it’s dreamlike and magical from the very first page.

But let’s take another look at the art.  You see, the very same balancing act is going on in the art as in the story.  On the one hand, you have the dreamy haziness of the black and white, which functions (again, think of The Tea Party in the Woods) as a muted reflection of the world: familiar, but a bit unfamiliar at the same time.  You’ll also notice as you read that it starts out darker, a nighttime scene, but gets whiter and whiter as you progress farther into the snowy landscape with the story.  (I’m sorry, this is where I’d normally talk about the medium the illustrator used, but, sadly, I can’t find that information!  I’d hazard a guess at pencils and maybe charcoal.  Perhaps also some digital effects.)

And yet, even through the dreamlike shades of charcoal-like blacks, greys, and whites, we’re constantly being grounded into reality by occasional pops of colour.  Our girl’s red scarf, the orange in the cat’s fur, and a variety of red accents on the other children’s clothing all serve to bring us back to the realism of playing in the snow.  And there’s something else I wonder whether a non-parent would notice: Bomi Park gets the posture of a young child bending over in a snowsuit spot-on perfect, absolutely 100% real.  Children move and bend their legs differently in snowsuits, and that touch of realism makes me smile every time I flip through this book.

You know, I grew up in a very snowy place (New Brunswick, Canada), and I have to say that it’s been a long time since I saw anyone capture what perfect, fresh snow feels like as well as this book does.  I’d say that it handles snow as beautifully as Ellen Bryan Obed handled ice in Twelve Kinds of Ice.  And as winter begins to arrive in earnest, I can use a book like this to remind me of the beauties and joys of the season.  So I have one recommendation right now:  Go and get this book (it’s 20% off at the Harvard Book Store!), and then read it with your kid.  Then get bundled up together and just walk outside and see what winter looks like for you.

Who? What? Where?

Dear everyone who’s stopped by my blog only to mutter: “Who? What? Where?”

I’m sorry.  I’m writing my dissertation and fighting demons at the same time, and it gets a little hectic!  Also the Changeling caught a nasty cold last week.  In short: I was prevented from writing here by Life Happening.

I will be back very soon with a proper post (boy, do I have some great books to share with you all!), but in the meantime, do you remember this book?  Who Done It? by Olivier Tallec?  Well, Chronicle Books has another of his!  The same cute concept, some of the same cute characters, but a new little hunting game.  It has the Changeling’s stamp of approval already.  Go here to check it out!  Who?  What?  Where?

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