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Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Hired Girl, written by Laura Amy Schlitz. Candlewick, Random House. 2015. $23.99 ages 12 and up

"Miss Chandler says that life isn't worth living if you haven't a sense of poetry. But I think the most important thing those books gave me was a kind of faith. My books promised me that life wasn't just made up of workaday tasks and prosaic things. The world is bigger and more colorful and more important than that. Maybe not here at Steeple Farm, but somewhere. It has to be. It has to be."

I don't blame Joan Skraggs for running away from the life she is leading with her horrible father and awful brothers, after caring for them in the wake of her beloved mother's death. She cleans, cooks, faces physical and mental abuse at almost every turn, and bears it while she can escape to her books and a chance to learn with attendance at school. The last straw comes when her scurrilous father removes her from school, refuses to pay her for her hard work, and burns her three cherished books.

Joan knows she can make $6 a week as a hired girl in Baltimore. After all, it is the early nineteenth century. Bravery and anger at a high point, and with a secret stash of money left by her mother, she sets off to find work. She is 14 and alone on a park bench when she is helped by a young man who takes her to his fine home. She tells the Rosenbach family that her name is Janet Lovelace, she is 18, and she will work very hard to be the hired girl they need to help Malka, their aged housekeeper.

Her diary entries offer a window into Joan's world. She has grand plans for herself, and we are privy to those plans and the life she leads in the Rosenbach household trough her carefully constructed narratives. She would love to be a writer in later life. In the meantime, she will do what she has to do to make her way. She is a determined young woman, wanting to learn and eager for romance. Her voice is endlessly charming, while also being vulnerable and uncertain at times, impetuous and naive at others.

In spite of her young age, she is an eager learner of the lessons that living teaches. There are some  not so easily learned, and not without heartbreak. Ultimately, with the help of Malka, the Rosenbachs and her own fine character, she finds her way in life and hope for the future. Joan's story is about loyalty, honor, family, friendship, art, faith, education and love. Brilliantly told, and so memorable.

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