The Hired Girl, Nina’s Take
Well I can’t say I’ve been looking forward to this post, but I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether to do it at all, and what it’s about. Jonathan and I decided we wanted this book on our shortlist, despite my own reservations about it, because it is such a strong contender. Traditionally, we revisit each book on our shortlist, closer to discussion, so you all have a chance to share and discuss after reading it yourselves, and, traditionally, we try to trade off posts so that we’ve each penned one about each shortlisted title.
For these reasons, for the spirit of the discussion, which is the whole point of this blog to me, it’s important to revisit this title, even though our previous discussion covered a heck of a lot of ground, and I said plenty there already. It is always impossible to put everything you think about a book in a blog post..and a Newbery discussion is different than a written review. For the award deliberation, I want to look at an examine EVERYTHING. It’s like closet cleaning…you take everything out, sort and organize things, toss some, put some less important things to the back…. no matter where things end up, no matter the ultimate value you assign each item, you have to touch and look at and consider each and every piece. I know that many of you were frustrated at how much of the last discussion focused on certain parts of the book. I can’t promise that won’t happen again, but will try, and urge us all to, touch on new perspectives. I have now re-read the book, and while I’ll say right here that I don’t think my feelings about it have shifted a lot, I can articulate more what I appreciate about the book, and the small parts that trouble me.
Besides revisiting the many amazing comments from our previous post, I encourage you to revisit other posts on the book that have touched on the same discussion:
With that preamble, here’s my current thoughts about THE HIRED GIRL, considering it on re-read as a book under consideration for a Mock Newbery discussion, and assuming all previous discussion is still on the table and part of the conversation.
This remains one of my favorite books of the year, one whose voice and character I’m drawn to personally, and a with a sentence-level writing style that I greatly admire, and is rare in children’s books. Opening it again, I found myself sinking into the prose like a warm bath: I was so glad to be there, and wanted to stay. Because this book speaks to me so personally as a reader, I had to both value, and distrust, what spoke to me. I’m trying to be aware of what I know, and bring to the book as the reader I am…understand where my personal taste and experience enter into my judgment.
There is a deliberate carelessness and abandon in Janet/Joan’s character. We see it in the sprawling prose, which some have objected to. The “plot” here is certainly rangy, and as someone noted Janet/Joan seems to have an awful lot of time to write, but I appreciated how realistically sprawling the diary was, and I don’t think Schlitz could have told this story without it. It is what allows Joan to be so naive, ignorant, and wrong-headed,…and change, right before our eyes. I don’t think I’d have believed her moments of self-insight otherwise. Some of my favorites are the moments where she gets half an understanding about herself… it allows us to see how her mind works smartly even while immaturely:
p.118 “I’m mad at myself for wanting Mr. Solomon to notice me, and I’m mad at him for ignoring me, as if I were invisible.”
p.241 “Skip Mass? I know that’s a sin, and the dreadful thing was, right away I began to imagine myself committing it. Just like that!”
p.260 “Sometimes it seems to me that David’s more powerful than I am—not with his muscles but in some way I can’t put my finger on—and if he sees me beating carpets, he’ll be even more powerful.”
These moments lay the groundwork for ones like this to have full impact:
p.370 “It’s a strange and piteous thing, because when I dreamed of true love, I dream of David loving me. But I was the one who loved truly. Knowing that, I can hold up my head, even though I made a fool of myself and my heart is broken.”
Given that the sheer glut of words seems crucial to the voice and character, I’m willing to forgive the book its length and occasional drag. On both reads, I found myself thinking simultaneously, “I can’t wait to get back to the book and Janet/Joan…” and “Why? Nothing’s happening.” First thought always was redeemed.
This abandon is also what underlies our previous discussion about her narrow mind and changing view. Over and over, Janet/Joan exposes her own ego-centric view and naivete based in stereotype (all perfectly age-, and time-period, appropriate). It comes up mostly in her regards to her views of Judaism, and to show how she develops and more complex understanding of it. As just one example, Joan struggles with what she’s read about Jews, and the little she knows of them after a few days in the Rosenbach’s house, as she considers bringing up the matter of a salary with Mrs. Rosenbach:
p.114 “Thinking about it got me worried, because in Ivanhoe the Jews have a lot of money, but they’re very close with it, though Rebecca isn’t, of course. Sir Walter Scott says that the Jews have a great love of gain. I began to worry that Mrs. Rosenbach might not give me any money. It would be a sneaking, stingy thing to do, to make a poor girl work all week and then not give her any wages. I can’t think—I don’t want to think—the Rosenbach’s are like that. Mr. Solomon was very good to me, and anyone can see that Mrs. Rosenbach is a real lady….”
She begins the next diary entry:
p.119 “I’m just boiling with shame, because of what I wrote about the Jews having a great love of gain. I am to be paid, and handsomely.”
Though she grows in understanding, she doesn’t do so unrealistically; I think of her character by the end as a little more knowledgeable, certainly more empathetic, and still bound by stereotype. (For instance, her repeated references to “Jewish noises,” or, towards the very end: “p.384 “I’ve become very Jewish, because it seems to me that the real New Year begins in the fall, with housecleaning and Rosh Hashanah.”)
Here are two passages which, together, sum up for me the journey Janet/Joan has taken as a character. In one, she is posed a riddle, in form of a story, by Mr. Rosenbach, standing in front of people ready to judge her and hold power over her. She solves it, and shares her mature and level-headed realization:
p.347 “Mr Rosenbach’s asking me to respect his faith. He’s telling me, in a kind way, not to try to turn Oskar into a Catholic.”
A few pages later, she muses, in a way that shows us she is still a vain and romantic teenager, but a pretty smart and self-reflective one:
p.352 “I ought to open up my heart to the possibility that I deserved to be unhappy, because I’m such a sinner. ….. I spent money on clothes that I might have given to the poor; and speaking of the poor, I don’t seem to care about the poor, and the poor are very important. Of course I wish there weren’t any poor people, but I almost never think about the ones there are, and if I cared about them the way Our Lord told me to, I would worry about them once in a while. But I daydream about clothes more than I think about the poor….”
This is, in effect, Janet/Joan’s “cataloging” of herself to herself, sitting in church, waiting for God and “His chastisement,” and which leads to her moment of faith.
If Janet/Joan’s sense of “abandon,” risk-taking, crossing lines, and growing as a result, is indicative in the narrative style Schlitz employs to tell it, we should acknowledge that much of the narrative does feel like throwing things at a wall to see what sticks. What happens to the Belinda money? What about Luke, the one brother she actually held fondness for? There are endless threads out there, and to some extent it’s part of the aura… it’s certainly gives a sense through text of the image we are given of Janet/Joan, with hair astray. It’s both a strength and a weakness of the text, because it is, by definition, unpredictable and inconsistent.
And, in some places, it presents troubling propositions for readers. There are many many instances of anti-Semitism or Jewish stereotyping, but I do feel that Schlitz creates enough of a development and arc of this theme that the reader understands why, and expects it…and can choose to continue, or not continue, the book, since it is clear this is what the book is about. (I am not able to resolve for myself, a white non-Jewish atheist, how well Schlitz handles anti-Semitism in this book, except to note you all have presented convincing assessments on both sides, so I have to assume both interpretations are valid and will be indicative of a spectrum of reader responses.)
In the scene on p.93 in which Janet/Joan uses “civilized Indians” as a comparison point to Jews, one we’ve talked so much about, she produces a stereotype, immediately shows how she doesn’t feel that way anymore…and winds up with another stereotype. This is consistent with the overall arc of her character that I’ve outlined through the whole book: she grows, but only so much. It feels chillingly realistic…and gratuitous. This scene leads up to Janet/Joan offering to “learn” Anti-Semitism without knowing what it is, and Mrs. Rosenbach saying “You’re right, Solly. She is utterly without guile. And as you say, she’s a stranger in a strange land.” (p.94). Janet/Joan’s comment about Indians may be “deliberate and damning” as many of you have argued, but damning her narrow views about Indians is not the import of this scene, nor of any other scene in the book. In fact, it’s the later references to playing Indian that amplify the way this comment hangs out there.”‘You’re good at playing,’ Oskar said earnestly. I felt terribly pleased. But of course, one buffalo was not enough; he had to hunt another one. Then we killed a few wolves.” ( p.302.). None of this is revisited, given any thought, except for an echo on p.383 “I’ve come to love Oskar. We have splendid games together.”
In a later comment in our first discussion, Monica called these scenes “carefully positioned and contextualized.” I cannot agree, after re-reading several times. The first felt carefully positioned, but as leverage for putting a different point into context. I think the playing Indians scene was just dropped in there. Though these are small moments in a huge text, and we trust readers to bring knowledge and critical response to a book, and to take what they learn back into the world critically… we can’t ignore the real-world context in which many children will read these scenes, when considering reader response. I do think it’s essential to at least browse the student comments in the White House report on American Indian and Alaska Native Education report Debbie pointed us to in an earlier comment, to consider how readers, Native or not, may read these comments. I think there was a carelessness, and abandon, in using these small scenes in the way Schlitz did; that it was absolutely deliberate and consistent with what she was trying to do, but that the scenes will communicate to many readers in ways she did not intend, and which break the reader’s trust, by rendering what they bring to the reading invisible.
Now: this flavor of flaw is, sadly, present in so many books today, and none is cut and dry; there’s not one kind of presentation of stereotype that is “offensive/bad” vs. “contextualized/good.” They are all over our shelves, and in all of our media, and each presentation serves a wider discussion of bias in our communities differently. When I consider this book for a library collection, for individual recommendation, for classroom read-aloud…I can see completely different ways to approach this text. However, when I consider it as a singular example of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, I find this small but deep fault in “Interpretation of the theme or concept” and “Appropriateness of style,” in balance with what the book brings to the reader and the other questions it asks, to undermine the book’s display of “respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations” enough to make me set it aside for the Newbery.
So, this is still my tipping point, though there is even more in the scales that I haven’t brought up here. There are many more threads in previous comments that I’m intrigued to talk about in more, including Sarah Hamburg’s delving into Jim Crow history in Baltimore during the period, and Schlitz’s use of humor, which is a large part of what draws me in. I hope that you’ll each bring your new and developing thoughts to the discussion.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at email@example.com
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