I was first drawn to read Laura Amy Schlitz's The Hired Girl by controversy over one line in a diary entry dated July the fifth, 1911. “ ‘No, ma'am,’ I said. I was as taken aback as if she'd asked me if I was an Indian. It seemed to me – I mean, it doesn't now, but it did then – as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there are Indians out West, but they're civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any.”
Then we selected it for our de Grummond Book Group which meets at Cook Library on the USM campus at 11:30 on the third Thursday of every month – and to which you are invited if you are in the neighborhood, whether or not you have read the selection. I’ll return later to the controversy which focused on the protagonist’s comment about Indians.
The story begins in the summer of 1911 with Joan Skraggs, orphaned by her mother and ill-treated by her father, making an escape to a better world. In that world, she works as a hired girl for a wealthy Jewish family for the momentous salary of $6 a week. Joan passes herself off as Janet to avoid discovery by her family. Her diary tells a story reminiscent of her own heroine, Jane Eyre.
The details of time and place wrap a quest for Janet to discover who she is as she searches in her own spiritual ties to her mother’s Catholicism and in the books that Mr. Rosenbach encourages her to read. Relationships with each of the Rosenbach’s and their lifelong maid enrich the story and help Janet along her journey out of the naivety and prejudice that began her journey.
As for the controversy, it could have been sanitized out, but the book would have lost the authenticity of what a young girl from a rural area would have felt at the time. Even more importantly, it would have lost the way she began to change as she learned to know and appreciate people different from herself. By July sixteenth, 1911, she writes, “But even Thomashefsky the cat likes to be told how handsome he is – you can tell by the way he purrs and flexes his paws – and I sometimes wonder if every living thing doesn’t need kind words as much as sunshine and water.”
The satisfying ending to this novel with many twists and turns includes the establishment of a school still in existence. Should your curiosity make you want to go there as it did me, you can find it at www.parkschool.net .