The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

I don’t really want to summarize the plot of this novel because for me it wasn’t about the plot. In fact, as an older teen or an adult reads the book, he or she can pretty well predict what’s going to happen to fourteen year old Joan as she goes from life on the farm to the big city of Baltimore to escape her father and find a new life for herself in 1911. Her only real knowledge of life comes from a few chance remarks from her beloved teacher, Miss Chandler, and from the three novels that Miss Chandler gave her: Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Just think what your ideas about how the world works would be if you had grown up rather isolated on a farm with an emotionally abusive father, a devoted but sickly mother, and those three novels to inform your views. I haven’t read Dombey and Son, but I can easily imagine the romantic excesses that Jane Eyre and Ivanhoe might lead one to commit. And Joan is just the sort of strong, passionate, naive girl to get her self into quite a bit of trouble, well-meaning but a bull in a china closet.

The Hired Girl is a diary novel; Ms. Schlitz allows us to see into the mind and motivations of a fourteen year old Catholic housemaid in a Jewish household in the early part of the twentieth century. And the author gets Joan’s voice just right. I really believed in this innocent but intelligent girl, hard-working, trying to become a “refined lady”, confident yet dangerously naive. She reminded me of Jo March, without the nervous energy of a March daughter, or Anne Shirley with a somewhat harder road to hoe. Joan, who calls herself “Janet” to disguise her identity, lucks out in that she gets a job with a kind, rich Jewish family, but she does not get a Matthew or a Marilla to adopt her and treat her as a daughter, although she almost gets a substitute father and mother in her employer and the elderly housekeeper that she works with. She also, like Anne, lets her passionate nature and impulsivity get her into a lot of scrapes, but Joan/Janet’s scrapes are quite a bit more serious and even dangerous than Anne’s ever were. (That’s why the book is for older teens, at least the age of the main character or older.)

And yet the book is funny. I laughed out loud sometimes at Joan’s artlessness and enthusiasm. And I became very anxious when I saw the direction in which her decisions were taking her. It’s a direction that the reader will know is bound to lead to disaster, even though Joan, caught up in imagining herself as the heroine of one of her favorite novels, is oblivious to the impending ruin that her innocence and ignorance are inviting. The juxtaposition of Joan’s rather immature but devoted Catholicism and the sophisticated, ingrained Judaism of her employer’s family was quite well-written and so intriguing. Not many writers can write religion and religious differences both convincingly and respectfully.

I can only imagine the skill and hard work that were required for Ms. Schlitz to pull this novel together, make its voice, that of a fourteen year old innocent, true and convincing, and still show the reader what is going on behind the scenes, in the minds and decisions of the other characters in the novel. I’d recommend The Hired Girl to mature teens and adults. Anyone who’s ready for Jane Eyre should be ready for this one, too, although I suppose an argument could be made that fourteen year old Joan wasn’t quite ready to really understand and interpret Jane Eyre in all its full meaning. It’s an interesting question. What novel(s) could Miss Chandler have given Joan that would have better prepared her for living as a hired girl in the city? (Not that Miss Chandler knew that Joan would be running away to the city.)

Maybe she should have read Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, published in 1900, as a sort of cautionary tale. Or Madame Bovary. But maybe the lessons of those adult novels would have gone right over her head.

1911: Events and Inventions

All year: The French and the Germans squabble over influence in Morocco. In November, the Germans finally agree to recognize French influence in Morocco in return for territory in the French Equatorial African colony of Middle Congo. The crisis leads to Britain and France making a naval agreement where the Royal Navy promises to protect the northern coast of France from German attack.

'COLOSSUS -- Brit. (LOC)' photo (c) 1910, The Library of Congress - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/March, 1911. The British announce plans to build five more Dreadnought battleships for the Royal Navy in response to German naval expansion.

May 25, 1911. Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz is forced by the rebels to resign from office. Francisco Madero takes over as provisional president. Diaz leaves Mexico a few days later for exile in France. At the beginning of the year, President Taft sent forces to the Mexican border to guard the border territory from the unrest in Mexico, and in April U.S. troops entered Mexico to quell the rebellion.

July 24, 1911. Hiram Bingham rediscovers the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains in Peru.

August 22, 1911. The theft of the Mona Lisa is discovered in the Louvre. (It was two years before the real thief was discovered. Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia had stolen it by entering the building during regular hours, hiding in a broom closet and walking out with it hidden under his coat after the museum had closed.)

September, 1911. Italy declares war on Turkey (Ottoman Empire). In November, Italy annexes Tripoli and Cyrenaica and wins a decisive victory over Turkish forces in North Africa.

November 1, 1911. The world’s first combat aerial bombing mission takes place in Libya during the Italo-Turkish War. An Italian flier drops several small explosives.

'Portrett av Roald Amundsen, juni 1899' photo (c) 1899, Nasjonalbiblioteket - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/December 14, 1911. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his party become the first men to reach the South Pole five weeks ahead of British Captain Robert F. Scott and his team who reach the South Pole in March, 1912. Tragically, Scott and his men do not survive the journey back to their base camp on the coast of Antarctica.

December, 1911. Scientist Marie Curie wins an unprecedented second Nobel Prize “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element”.

December 29, 1911. Dr. Sun Yat-sen is elected president of the newly declared Republic of China. In October, Pu Yi, the five year old emperor of China, surrendered his power and agreed to grant a constitution.

Reading about The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911 caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged sixteen to twenty-three who generally who worked nine hours a day on weekdays plus seven hours on Saturdays. Many of the workers could not escape the fire because the managers and owners had locked the stairwells and emergency exits.

Here are a few fiction books that dramatize and memorialize this horrific tragedy:

For children:
Lieurance, Suzanne. The Locket: Surviving the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (Historical Fiction Adventures).
Eleven-year-old Galena and her older sister, Anya, are Russian-Jewish immigrants living with their parents in a one-room tenement apartment in New York City. Six days a week the girls walk to work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Each morning Galena asks to see the pictures of family members inside the gold locket Anya wears around her neck before she and her sister part to work on different floors.
Littlefield, Holly. Fire at the Triangle Factory. (A Carolrhoda On My Own book).
In 1911 New York City, Jewish Minnie and Catholic Tessa can only be friends at the factory, but this friendship pays off when the famous and tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire takes the lives of many of their coworkers and threatens theirs.

For Young adults:
Auch, Mary Jane. Ashes of Roses.
Sixteen-year-old Rose Nolan and her family are grateful to have finally reached America, the great land of opportunity. Their happiness is shattered when part of their family is forced to return to Ireland. Rose wants to succeed and stays in New York with her younger sister Maureen. The sisters struggle to survive and barely do so by working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
Davies, Jacqueline. Lost.
Essie, 16, sews all day for pennies at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to help feed her fatherless family and now to forget her little sister’s death. Then the fire happens.
Friesner, Esther. Threads and Flames.
Raisa has just traveled alone from a small Polish shtetl all the way to New York City. She finds work in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory sewing bodices on the popular shirtwaists. And she falls in love. But will she survive the fire?
Haddix, Margaret Peterson. Uprising.
Ms. Haddix gives the story a human face by making it the story of three girls: Bella, an immigrant from Southern Italy, Yetta, a Russian Jewish immigrant worker, and Jane, a poor little rich girl who becomes involved in the lives of the shirtwaist factory workers in spite of her rarified existence as a society girl. Semicolon review here.
Hopkinson, Deborah. Hear My Sorrow: The Diary of Angela Denoto, a Shirtwaist Worker, New York City 1909. (Dear America Series)
Angela and her family have arrived in New York City from their village in Italy to find themselves settled in a small tenement apartment on the Lower East Side. When her father is no longer able to work, Angela must leave school and work in a shirtwaist factory.

For adults:
Weber, Katherine. Triangle.
Not only about the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, this adult novel is also about music. And it’s a history mystery. Recommended.

1911: Art

The “Blue Rider” group of artists led by Kandinsky and Franz Marc, has its first show in Munich Germany in September, 1911. This one is called Improvisation 19:

'Kandinsky, Improvisation 19, 1911' photo (c) 2008, Sharon Mollerus - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Kandinsky also wrote a treatise called Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Here are a few sample quotations from Kandinsky’s writing:

“Must we then abandon utterly all material objects and paint solely in abstractions? . . . There is no must in art, because art is free.”

“Colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammer, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hands which play, touching one key or another, purposively, to cause vibrations in the Soul.”

“Let the viewer stroll around within the picture, to force him to forget himself and so to become a part of the picture.”

“I let myself go. I thought little of the houses and trees, but applied colour stripes and spots to the canvas with the knife and made them sing out as strongly as I could.”

I think he’s trying to communicate something, but I’m not sure what. Kandinsky also wrote to Arnold Schonberg and said that he was trying to do in painting exactly what Schonberg had already accomplished in music: “The independent progress through their own destinies, the independent life of the individual voices in your compositions is exactly what I am trying to find in my paintings.”

1911: Popular Music

Mark Steyn on the #1 Hit of 1911: Come Josephine in My Flying Machine.

NPR story on the song of the decade, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”:

More Popular Songs of 1911:
“I Want A Girl (Just Like The Girl)” by William Dillon and Harry Von Tilzer.
“(On) Moonlight Bay” by Edward Madden and Percy Wenrich.
“Oh, You Beautiful Doll” w. A. Seymour Brown, m. Nat D. Ayer.

Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Recommended at The Reading Zone.

The Triangle Fire was a history-making event in America, and Margaret Peterson Haddix’s historical fiction novel, Uprising gives a good picture of the epoch and the culture that made the tragedy possible and made it influential as a precursor to change.

Wikipedia:

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was the largest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York, causing the death of 146 garment workers who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. It was the worst workplace disaster in New York City until September 11th, 2001. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers in that industry.

Ms. Haddix gives the story a human face by making it the story of three girls: Bella, an immigrant from Southern Italy, Yetta, a Russian Jewish immigrant worker, and Jane, a poor little rich girl who becomes involved in the lives of the shirtwaist factory workers in spite of her rarified existence as a society girl. Of the three, Jane is the least believable as a character. She runs away from her rich father because she is appalled at his indifference to the working conditions of the poor. Instead of moving heaven and earth to find her, Jane’s father lies and says she’s gone away for a visit and assumes she’ll come back to papa in due time. Rich people, even cold, heartless rich people, don’t act that way, do they? If nothing else it would be socially unacceptable to misplace one’s daughter, wouldn’t it?

Nevertheless, it’s a good book with a bit of a mystery and a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming. If you guess who’s telling the story within the first few chapters, you’re doing better than I did. Good solid historical fiction.