Set anything with class distinctions and fancy households at the turn of the twentieth century and it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Downton Abbey. But that would be a huge disservice to The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, which has the requisite detail and decorum for a period piece, but also substance and heart.
Fourteen year old Joan’s narration begins when she pours her thoughts and feelings into the diary her teacher gifts her after her father forces her to drop out of school and earn her keep on the farm. A harsh and stingy man, he isolates Joan, treats her like a servant, and belittles her at every turn. When he tries to break Joan’s spirit after she stages a one-woman strike to gain a sliver of financial independence, she flees to the city with the meager emergency fund her dead mother left for her.
Through luck, naivete and a bit of deception, Joan lands a position as a serving girl with the Rosenbach’s, a wealthy German Jewish household. Out of kindness, the Rosenbachs hire her without references, with the stipulation that their very old, very picky Orthodox housekeeper has the final say over Joan’s employment.
As the Rosenbach’s hired girl, Joan begins to carve out a new identity through education, economic independence, relationships and religion. As she becomes more familiar with the Jewish faith (previously, the only Jews she knew were from the novel, Ivanhoe), Joan also learns how to live out her Catholic faith (passed down from her mother) while being mindful of others’ beliefs.
Schlitz does an excellent job exploring religion in practical terms as Joan considers what it means to be Catholic in a Jewish household. Should she remove her mother’s crucifix from her bedroom wall because it’s a traumatizing symbol for the Rosenbach’s housekeeper, who lived through the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Or should she exercise her freedom of religion, a right the Rosenbachs deeply value? Since the central tenant of Christianity is to tell others about Jesus, should Joan view her fortuitous placement in the Rosenbach household as a sign from God to convert her employers? If so, then how?
Actually, quite a few of Joan’s well-meaning schemes, religious or otherwise, backfire hilariously. Each mess and misunderstanding is confessed to Joan’s diary in painstaking detail.
As a reader, I appreciated that even though the narrative is completely filtered through Joan’s perspective, I had a good sense of what the other characters were feeling thanks to Joan’s keen power of observation. Also, thanks to her knack for detail, The Hired Girl was also a visual treat. If someone was dressed up for an outing, I could count on Joan to give me the juicy details regarding the color, cut, pattern, and sheen of the fabric.
I also liked that Schlitz’s characters came across as accessible to contemporary readers, but they’re not anachronistic. For example, as the lady of the house, Mrs. Rosenbach is a considerate employer and forgives a lot of Joan’s blunders, but she is still a stickler for class distinctions and doesn’t interfere when she suspects Joan is working underage. Meanwhile, Joan is not prejudiced against Jews like many people at the time, but that’s mainly because she’s lived a sheltered life. However, she learns to reject anti-Semitism when she encounters it because of her experiences with the Rosenbachs.