Friday, November 27, 2015

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

Sheesh... have you read all the hoopla over this book? It is quite fascinating. And exhausting. If not, read the Heavy Medal blog or Betsy Bird's blog. I picked a good year to start a Newbery contender book club at our school. The blogs are terrific insight into discussions on what makes a book exemplary or not. Case in hand, The Hired Girl, has no one arguing about the terrific character development and literary elements, but they are questioning how children will read it in regards to the unreliable narrator's prejudiced views. Laura Amy Schlitz tackles so many themes and does it quite well with setting, historical accuracy, craft, and more. The story is distinguished and worth discussing. Some think the plot's action too convenient. Some think the pacing is slow. Some think the Native American comment a fatal flaw. Some think it is brilliant literature. I was wowed by the depth and layering of themes and characters. As with all these reviews it comes down to ones own opinion.

The main character, Joan, is 14 and runs away from her cruel father who has pulled her from school to work the farm. Her views of the world are from reading books and they are skewed, to say the least. She's an unreliable narrator with a propensity toward being melodramatic and romantic as well as smart, kind, and wants more in life than being a servant. She reminds me of Anne of Green Gables, annoying and endearing at the same time. She is a strong character and a survivor. Joan, a Christian girl, gets hired by a Jewish family as a servant. The story shows her character arc as one who embraces her Christian beliefs while learning to respect the religious differences of the Jewish family she lives with and who has been kind to her.  The story is layered and complex and full of controversy because Joan is so ignorant and says prejudiced things at first. At its heart, Joan is embracing Catholicism and in the process she tries to convert a young Jewish boy. She does it in innocence and doesn't realize until later that it was an act of betrayal to those that let her live under their roof. In the process she learns how to respect the Jewish religion and embrace her own beliefs without judgement. Ironically it is a message of tolerance; however, the author has a statement in the book that seems to be intolerant.

The offending paragraph that has caused an uproar isn't about Joan's comments on Jews because her character arc shows how she changes. The offense is taken by this statement: “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.” The argument is that with race and culture in combination with literary analysis, does this statement work for the reader or hurt the young reader that can't tell that it is prejudiced? Joan is interested in clothes and spatters narrow-minded statements throughout the narrative text. Much of it is funny. Here the unfortunate word choice of "civilized" is a stumbling block. But does it taint the whole book? Will a young reader be able to distinguish her naivety? The only part of this passage that I see playing in her character arc is that she is fascinated with clothes for the first time in her life. She shops with Mimi and discusses clothes at length. Joan's only understanding of Native Americans is from reading the book, "Ivanhoe." Her views up to this point have been clearly established as unreliable. But I'm not Native American and I'm not a young reader so I can understand the arguments or offense against it.

I know adults read books differently than children. We come at it with more experience and background. That's why I'm enjoying my book club with grade 5 students. One girl loved this book while two others abandoned it because of the "slow" beginning. Others have commented on the epistolary format and wondered if it affects the pacing. I was fine with it. I found some of Joan's emotions so painfully raw and honest and also hysterically funny. Would a younger reader feel the same? Joan's conversion to religion was particularly well-done and it is not something I have ever read in any children's book. All I can say is that you readers that are not adults, please give us your take on the story. I'm listening. Meanwhile, this goes on my Newbery list.

5 Smileys

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