Hired Girl CoverJoan Skraggs, the protagonist in The Hired Girl (Grades 6-9, Level Z, Lexile 810) has been likened to Anne Shirley and Jo March. Similar to those wholesome gals who I loved in my youth, Joan is a character I quickly became invested in. I truly cared about her well-being, lamented sorrows and celebrated her successes. By the end of the story, she was elevated to “fictional friend” (we all have those, right?). For me, this means I will think about her fondly and return to her story at some time in the future. It has been some time since I’ve met a new friend in a coming-of-age YA book.

My friend Joan hails from 1911. She’s a fourteen-year-old Pennsylvania farm girl running a household of men—her three brothers and one brute of a father. Joan tells us her story through diary entries, and her first entries are all woeful. We learn that her father has recently pulled her out of school to help at home. Joan, an intellectually gifted and eager young person, essentially becomes a prisoner to day-to-day household work. And dirty work it is! On top of cooking, minding the garden, tending the various animals, mending, and cleaning up after the men, one of her duties includes cleaning the outhouse. Need I say more? Joan refuses to accept this fate of drudgery. She has her own dreams. More than anything else, she wants to continue her education, in part for herself, and in part for her departed mother who secretly saved money for Joan’s future. So Joan continues to read every chance she gets, much to the disapproval of her father. She also stands her ground, going on strike when her father refuses to give her the egg money, which the woman of the house customarily keeps. Unfortunately this act prompts her father to do the unthinkable. He burns her books. All three of them. The three books are Jane EyreDombey and Son and Ivanhoe, works referenced throughout the story as they have helped form much of her ideas of the world.

After the tragic book burning, Joan immediately makes a plan to escape—and succeeds! She uses money that her mother gave her in secret to buy a train ticket to Baltimore. In Baltimore, she plans to find work. On her first night, a young man named Solomon Rosenbach comes across Joan on a park bench. He brings her to his family home and asks his mother to take her in temporarily. Joan expresses her wish to find work as a hired girl for some respectable family. Before she knows it, she is hired on by the Rosenbachs. I should mention here that she lies to her new employers about her age and name. To them, she is Janet, an eighteen-year-old runaway.

Hired Girl Table of Contents Hired Girl part one Hired Girl Art Acknowledgments

Hired Girl is broken down into seven parts with each part corresponding to a piece of artwork referenced at the end.

The Rosenbachs are a Jewish family, and there is much to learn about their traditions. Good thing Joan’s a smart one! From Shabbos preparation each week to keeping kashrut, running a big Jewish household may prove to be more physical work than running a farmhouse. Nevertheless, she soon becomes a trusted employee and friend of old Malka, the long-time family servant. Even with this success, Joan knows she is working below her potential. Her longing for an education persists. Mr. Rosenbach takes an interest in Joan’s desire to learn and offers her the unlimited use of the family library. Joan is thrilled … but she also knows that it is only one step to achieving her dreams. Working full-time as a hired girl doesn’t allow time for a real education. At one point she wonders when her life will really begin.

On top of all of these changes, Joan is navigating the whole gamut of normal teen turmoil. The 12-year-old Rosenbach daughter, Mimi, befriends her and quickly questions her age. Joan is still a child, after all! She also starts to feel attached to the Rosenbach sons. She develops innocent crushes, first on Solomon, and then on the younger (and more dashing) David. These crushes end up getting her into a bit of trouble with the family, as she interferes more than a servant should. She is clearly lonely in her new life, and the Rosenbachs are the closest thing she has to a family. Religion, a less common coming-of-age theme these days, also comes into play. She is trying to navigate her own Catholic religion, a link to her mother. The juxtaposition between her budding Catholic faith and the established Jewish traditions of the Rosenbachs makes for an interesting contrast. She has much respect for the faith of Rosenbachs and longs to learn about her own traditions. She sees the importance of faith in one’s life.

For me, The Hired Girl was a surprising breath of fresh air in YA. I love the whole upstairs-downstairs, Downtonesque storylines, and the portrayal of a Catholic girl working for a Jewish family in the early 20th century is something I’ve never seen before. Ultimately, though, it comes down to my friend Joan. I devoured her heartfelt entries as if they were letters from a friend. As Joan worked out what life’s all about and what she wanted for her life, I couldn’t help but admire her. Her day-to-day musings were thrilling, not because they were so out of the ordinary, but rather because Joan is so extraordinary in her outlook and perseverance. The best characters stay with us and inspire us to do better. Joan did that for me.

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