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.