The Hired Girl
I have always admired the work of Laura Amy Schlitz, but I have never been in love with it. Until now. Not only am I pulling for Newbery recognition for this one, I’d love to see it join THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION and LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY as only the third book to also get Printz recognition.
The strengths of the book are so obvious and so overwhelming that I am not going to talk about the characters, the setting, the style, or the theme, but rest assured that these literary elements easily place this book among the ranks of most distinguished contributions to children’s literature. I do want to dwell on the striking presence of religion, both Christianity and Judaism. Patty Campbell used to call it the last frontier in young adult literature; that was about 20 years ago but I don’t think much has changed since then. It’s hard to write about religion in a way that feels organic to the characters and the plot–and doesn’t affront our modern sensibilities. But that’s just what Schlitz has done here. It takes a deft and subtle hand to pull it off, making the book feel both excellent and individually distinct.
There are a couple of flaws so minor that they are hardly worth mentioning here, but I will point up the big one and I know people will disagree with me, but . . . the entire first section of the book is completely unnecessary and could have been edited out. This story really only begins once Joan arrives in Baltimore; it’s a bit of a slog up to that point and the information we learn in that section could have easily been folded into the remaining narrative. Yes, yes, you disagree with me. You can see all kinds of important things that Schlitz is doing in that first section, but none of it makes that first section necessary. I like Joan so much by the end of the book that I will probably relish that first section in a way that I did not on my first read, so while I do think this is a significant misstep, I don’t think many people will hold it against the book.
Moreover, I read some storytelling advice once that said it’s better to start with a flawed beginning than a flawed ending, and I think that is true. We’ve already seen how unforgiving readers can be of a “flawed” ending with ECHO; here I think they will forget the slow beginning by the time they get to the satisfying conclusion of the book.
There is probably another thing we should bring up here, something Debbie Reese mentioned on American Indians in Children’s Literature. The passage Debbie asks us to consider is Joan’s response to being asked if she’s Jewish. Her line of thinking compares Jewish people to American Indians in terms of their “otherness.”
It seemed to me–I mean, it doesn’t now, but it did then–as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there are Indians out West, but they’re civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any.
Debbie notes the use of the word “are” (as opposed to “were”) as a step in the right direction, but focuses on the word “civilized” which I do think has a loaded meaning that we are right to unpack. Debbie’s question is what makes them civilized? The fact that they wear ordinary clothes? And, by extension, any assimilation into the dominant culture? Joan really doesn’t give us anything beyond this. While I think Debbie’s line of reasoning is a valid one, especially in the context of other books that have frequently made the same misstep, I’m not sure it’s the only conclusion one can draw.
Here’s my read on the situation: Joan has a narrow worldview based on limited experience. Her experience with both Indians and Jews is based on things she’s read and heard rather than personal experience, and she knows that some of that information that she has read and heard is stereotypical. I think “ordinary clothes” is used here to contrast with American Indian clothing. I’m not sure that she’s really thought about the “why” of the clothing that Debbie examines in her line of questioning.
Clearly, Joan has a lot to learn, and she knows she has a lot to learn. She’s a wonderful mix of naiveté, melodrama, industriousness, piety, humility, candor, and spunk. If she holds an opinion of Indians that doesn’t sit well with us–and I’m not convinced that we can actually determine that she does–I think it’s probably exceeded by the erroneous thoughts and opinions that she holds about Jewish people. More importantly, I think that over the course of the novel readers come to realize that Joan’s personal experience with “the other” begins to ameliorate her ignorance.
This one remains firmly ensconced in my top three.
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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