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 Light, Troubling 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.
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!