The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schiltz
RATING: ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
I found the voice of the titular ‘Hired Girl’ strikingly familiar. Although Joan, the hired girl, is writing in the year 1911, her daily quandaries and feelings are processed and expressed in ways that consistently reminded me of my own diary entries at age fourteen, down to the sometimes cringe-worthy naiveté! Unlike some other works aimed towards YA audiences or grappling with the psyche of an adolescent, Schiltz’s book manages to present these moments of over-exuberance, hubris, or self-consciousness in a believable balance. Joan is decidedly likeable, her flaws often stemming from the greatest points of her personality: her curiosity, imagination, passion, and determination.
The detail in Joan’s descriptive diary entries also makes for an enjoyable read. There was never a point where I longed to skim through a passage in order to move to the next major plot point. Joan’s use of language is at once humorous and beautiful, fitting for a young girl who is relying largely on Wilkie Collins, Charlotte the novels of Brontë, and Sir Walter Scott for her education; her turns of phrase, awe, and imagination often reminded me of a toned-down version of Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables). Both Joan’s life of drudgery on a rural Pennsylvanian farm and her stint as a hired girl in a wealthy Baltimore home are colourfully brought to life through the characters she interacts with, descriptions of her daily tasks, and the various forms of art she observes. Though romance does come into the story at some point, the majority of character interaction focuses on the intricacies of inter-generational relationships amidst siblings, parents, ageing authority figures, teachers, etc. and Joan’s search for genuine love and tenderness.
A review of this book would not be complete without mention of the subject of religion. What could have been another treacly ‘coming of age’ is given an added dimension with Joan’s spiritual and intellectual journey. Joan’s cultural shock of travelling from rural farm to bustling city is compounded when she accidentally becomes the hired help/’shabbos goy’ in a Jewish family’s household. Joan’s attempt to reconcile her strong Catholic faith with her intellect and her own journey as she learns about what it means to be Jewish in Edwardian America is a pleasure to read.
The character of Joan Skraggs, aka Janet Lovelace, is a delightful addition to strong, well-rounded female heroines. Her love of literature, intellectual curiosity, sensitivity, passion, intransigent opinions are sure to find many kindred spirits.