Is a writer born, or formed?
For Joan Skraggs, the 14-year-old protagonist at the heart of The Hired Girl, a charming new YA novel (recommended for readers in Grades 6-9) from Newbery Medal-winning author Laura Amy Schlitz, the answer might be both.
When we meet Joan, it's the summer of 1911, and our plucky heroine has just been handed a terrible fate. Rather than finishing her education, she must stay home and tend to the family farm. It's not what Joan's mother would have wanted for her precocious daughter, but Joan's mother is dead. And now Joan's tyrannical, oafish father has bolted shut the door to the future and consigned Joan to a narrow life of hardscrabble labor.
For Joan, the disappointment is bitter, but brief. Like any good writer, she is a shrewd observer of character and masterly at plotting. And although some of her initial attempts to outwit her father go awry, Joan's eventual escape from Steeple Farm does prove successful – launching her into the glittering world of the Baltimore elite, where she may finally have an opportunity to finish her education.
First, though, Joan must land a job as a hired girl – which she does, thanks to the sympathies of a well-to-do family and to some quick rewriting on Joan's part. With a bit of a flourish, 14-year-old Joan Skraggs becomes 18-year-old "Janet Lovelace" – brave runaway and household help for the Rosenbachs.
It's in this new setting that Joan's fledgling writerly talents start to take flight. Surrounded by books and the characters that inhabit the Rosenbach home, Joan is free to read, observe, and indulge in a few romantic flights of fancy – which create much of the dramatic tension in this otherwise warmhearted and humorous novel.
That's not to say that "The Hired Girl" is light reading. Woven into Joan's chronicles of the daily goings-on are explorations of family, feminism, and faith. Schlitz handles the conflict between Joan's staunch Roman Catholicism and the Rosenbach's Jewish faith with a sure hand and incredible nuance. And Joan's realizations about the boundaries of her beliefs feel like realistic coming-of-age moments, not editorializing by the author.
The diary-like format of "The Hired Girl" means that readers witness not only Joan's maturing thought, but also her growth as a writer. "Charlotte Brontë didn't have a superior education," Joan's beloved teacher, Miss Chandler, tells her at the beginning of the book. "And yet she wrote 'Jane Eyre.' I believe you have a talent for composition, dear Joan.... You express yourself with vigor and originality, but you must strive for truth and refinement."
The writerly qualities Joan must develop – truth, refinement, insight, and perspective – do emerge, bit by bit, over the course of this narrative. But in the end, what is forged both by Joan's experience and from the spark that's already deep within her is the most important attribute of all: her voice.
Jenny Sawyer reviews children's books for the Monitor.