Candlewick Press, 2015
Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs lives on Steeple Farm, where her mother’s death has left her all the woman’s work that needs to be done for her bullying father and three unsympathetic brothers. Her father has forced her to drop out of school; the sum total of her life is scrubbing the privy and the chicken house, cleaning the perpetually dirty house, cooking three meals a day, and doing the laundry. But for a few minutes at night she reads one of her three beloved books and keeps the journal in which her former teacher has urged her to write “with truth and refinement.” After her father burns Joan’s books, she runs away, hoping to become a hired girl in the short run, and to “better herself” in the long run.
Joan’s diary follows her to Baltimore, where, by posing as a girl of 18, she becomes a hired girl in the household of the Rosenbach family. The Rosenbachs are wealthy (Mr. Rosenbach runs a department store), generous – and Jewish. Joan is Catholic, and she prays to the Blessed Mother in memory of her own mother. It’s an unlikely combination in 1911, and it causes considerable tension at first, but Joan (or Janet, as she has called herself) succeeds because she is the only hired girl the Rosenbachs have employed who can deal with their elderly Yiddish-speaking housekeeper, Malka. Perceptive and tolerant, Joan soon realizes that Malka, with her mutterings about shiksas, her unending disapproval of anything not Old World, her stories, her high standards of cleanliness, and her deathless loyalty to the Rosenbach family, is really a pushover. All she has to do is listen sympathetically, obey orders exactly, and work like a dog. She does all three, and as she describes her life in her journal, we learn a great deal about keeping kosher, cleaning and cooking for Shabbos, beating carpets, hanging drapes, and scrubbing floors.
We also learn a great deal about the Rosenbachs. Mr. Rosenbach, an intelligent, well-educated man, is delighted to let Joan read books in his library and enjoys talking to her. Their discussions of religious faith and toleration are entirely convincing, and her efforts to please him reveal a precocious intelligence (though she does like “The Moonstone” better than Marcus Aurelius). She, in fact, changes the tone of the household, realizing, for example, that 12-year-old Mimi Rosenbach has trouble reading because she needs glasses. But her familiarity with the Rosenbach sons, both in their early 20s, causes problems: an incurable romantic, she nearly ruins Solomon’s courtship – and she falls in love with charming, artistic David, who paints her. No good can come of it … but while the good Joan has desired does not, another good does. The ending is handled with all the skill one expects of a Newbury Medal winner like Schlitz, and readers of all ages over 12 or so will enjoy a book that is probably destined to be a classic.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.