The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

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Last night, as I turned to the last page of Laura Amy Schlitz’s new novel, The Hired Girl, I knew I would miss it, and today I find myself looking at the book longingly wishing I could re-enter its story.

The Hired Girl is about Joan, a 14-year-old girl who wants her world to expand. That could be the story of most young people caught between childhood and young adulthood. Joan is in that in-between time which is marked by intense passions, questions, mistakes, and dreams.

Schliltz’s novel, told as a series of diary entries, begins on a Pennsylvania farm in 1911. Joan has a hard life. Her beloved mother has died and her days are full of household chores for her cruel father and brothers. Joan is a dreamer though, and through the kindness of a teacher, she has read three novels which inspire her to escape.

She makes her way to Baltimore where she becomes a “hired girl” for the Rosenbach’s, a prominent and wealthy Jewish family. The first person narrative allows the reader to discover, with Joan, a different way to live. Most effectively, Schlitz addresses issues around money, class, education, and religion in a way that will encourage young readers to think about these issues in their own lives.

What struck me as especially honest about this book are Joan’s age appropriate missteps. There are moments of embarrassing recognition where I was absolutely squirming in my chair silently pleading with her not to do or say what she plans to – and, of course, does.  Joan  often says too much, acts impulsively, and makes misguided decisions.  But, above all, she is likable and genuine.

There are also places where Joan’s naiveté is quite glaring, and she expresses views (especially about Jews) that are, awkward to read today. The reader should remember that they are reading a historical novel and that the protagonist is a working class girl living in 1911. Joan has a limited education and little experience with people beyond her small community. It would be even more glaring if she reflected a 21st century world view!

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Recommend The Hired Girl to mature middle school readers. When I was thirteen, I remember reading Little Women and wanting more books just like that one. The book I was looking for is The Hired Girl. And although I’m many years away from thirteen, Schlitz’s rich and rewarding novel brought back some happy (and embarrassing) memories of that age and provided a warm and satisfying reading experience.

October 21 –  I saw this ad today so adding it to post!

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