Eds. note on Jan 12, 2016: I appended Sarah Hamburg's research on the history of Baltimore during the time period of The Hired Girl.
On October 2, 2015, I posted a short note about one passage in Laura Amy Schlitz's The Hired Girl. Schlitz's book is one of the books the Heavy Medal blog is discussing. That blog, for those who don't know, is at the School Library Journal website, and is where Nina Lindsay and Jonathan Hunt host discussions of books that may be in contention for the prestigious Newbery Medal. Books that win that award are purchased by school and public libraries across the country. Because books that win the Newbery carry such prestige, teachers assign them to students.
When he introduced the book on October 15, Jonathan Hunt linked to American Indians in Children's Literature and summarized my comments about The Hired Girl.
I appreciate that Jonathan Hunt brought my concerns to readers of Heavy Medal, but he also dismissed them as minor and said that The Hired Girl is among his top three books for this year. I've been active in the discussion and have read and re-read the book as I participate. The discussion has has spread over three distinct pages at School Library Journal, and over at Book Riot, too. The Jewish aspects of the book figure prominently in those discussions.
With this blog post, I'm bringing my thoughts into a single place for anyone interested in focusing on a Native perspective on The Hired Girl. Just below this paragraph is my "For the TL/DR crowd" which means 'too long/didn't read, but here's the key points.' Beneath it is my in-depth look at the book.
Set in 1911, The Hired Girl is about Joan, a 14 year old Catholic girl who runs away from her father's farm in eastern Pennsylvania. Her mother died a few years prior and Joan's life with her dad and older brothers is, to say the least, devoid of joy. The only source of joy is the teacher who gives her books. Near the end of the first part of the book, the teacher visits Joan. She gives her a bouquet of flowers wrapped in newspaper. Joan takes them in the house and returns outside. The teacher tries to give her some more books but Joan's dad comes upon them and sends the teacher and the books packing.
Back inside the house, Joan reads the newspaper that the flowers were wrapped in.
She reads an article about the Amalgamated Railroad Employees (railroad workers) being on strike and thinks maybe she ought to go on strike, too, so that her dad will give her some money for the work she does. In that same paper, she reads ads looking for "white girl to cook" and "first-class white girl for cooking and housework" and wishes she could be a hired girl. Her efforts to strike fail, her dad burns her books, and she runs away to Baltimore with the idea that she'll find work as a hired girl.
When she gets to Baltimore, the day ends with a near-rape. Joan escapes that, and ends up crying and praying on a park bench. In the midst of her prayer, a man offers to help her. That man is Solomon Rosenbach. His demeanor makes him more trustworthy than the man who tried to rape her. She tells him her story and that she's looking for work. The near-rape makes her wary, but Soloman has a plan that she's ok with, so she follows him to his home. He goes inside and tells his mother about her; Joan waits outside. Mrs. Rosenbach appears, asks her a few questions, and decides Joan--who is now going by Janet--can stay with them a few days if Malka, their Jewish housekeeper, doesn't mind. Feeling safe in their home, Joan decides she'd like to work for the Rosenbach's. She tells Mrs. Rosenbach that "you'll find me very willing" to help out. Here's that part of the story (Kindle Locations 1203-1219):
“Willing to work in a Jewish household?” she said, and when I didn’t answer right away, she added, “You, I think, are not Jewish.”
“No, ma’am,” I said. I was as taken aback as if she’d asked me if I was an Indian. 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 still 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.Joan is taken aback at the idea that she might be thought of as Jewish, or, Indian because she thought the Jews are like Indians: people from long ago. Joan knows there are Indians now (remember, the story takes place in 1911) and that they are "civilized" and "wear ordinary clothes."
What does Joan think civilized means? Does it mean wearing ordinary clothes like the ones she wears? Does she think wearing those clothes make those Indians civilized?
In the paragraphs immediately following that passage, we learn from Joan that the information she has about Jews is from Ivanhoe, but we aren't told where Joan got her information about Indians.
Let's see, though, what we might find out if we dig into books for children published during Joan's childhood, which would be 1897 (the year she was born) to the year she ran away, 1911. Maybe she read Wigwam Stories Told by North American Indians, by Mary Catherine Judd, published in 1901 by Ginn & Company in Boston. Wigwam Stories is recommended in a lot of publications of that time. It was recommended, for example, in 1902 in the Journal of Education published by Oxford University Press, in 1906 in Public Libraries: A Monthly Review of Library Matters and Methods, published by the Library Bureau, in 1910 in The Model School Library, published by the California Teachers Association, in 1915 in Books for Boys and Girls: A Selected List, published by the American Library Association, and in 1922 in Graded List of Books for Children, published by the National Education Association.
The preface for Wigwam Stories ends with this note from the author:
See that last sentence in the preface? It says "Careful investigations undertaken by the largest of nonreservation schools, at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, prove that 94 per cent of the 4000 students recorded there have never "returned to the blanket," but have become modern home makers."
Maybe Wigwam Stories is the source of Joan's information. Maybe she read it and asked her teacher for more information, and her teacher told her about Carlisle Indian Industrial School. That teacher is sympathetic to the conditions miners work in, so maybe she's also aware of the goings-on at Carlisle. Maybe she's even seen the before and after photographs taken of students--photographs meant to persuade people that the school was changing the children so that they would not, as the note says, "return to the blanket." Here's one of those photos:
Is that what Joan has in mind? Jonathan (at Heavy Medal) is arguing that when Joan thinks "they’re civilized now, and wear ordinary clothes," she is telling us that other people think in stereotypical ways, but she does not. He would have us think that she's more knowledgeable than other people of that time, but later, she invites Oskar to play Indian. At that part of the book, Joan and Malka are taking care of Mrs. Rosenbach's grandchildren. One is a little boy named Oskar. Malka wants him to nap, but he doesn't want to (Kindle Locations 3888-3900):
Malka looked at me with desperation in her eyes, and I rose to the occasion. I remembered how Luke and I used to play on the days when Ma aired her quilts. “I’ll take Oskar up to my room. We’ll make a blanket tent and play Indians. He’ll like that, won’t you, Oskar?”
Oskar looked intrigued, so I led him upstairs. I rigged a tent by draping the bedclothes over the foot of my bed and the top of the dresser. We crawled inside the tent, and I told Oskar there was a blizzard outside (we made blizzard noises) with wild wolves howling (we howled). Then I was inspired to say that we were starving to death inside our tent, and that we would die if no Indian was brave enough to go out and hunt buffalo. Oskar took the bait. “I’ll go,” he said, and squared his shoulders. “I’ll go kill the buffalo.”
“I’ll make you a horse,” I offered. To tell the truth, I was starting to enjoy myself. I tore strips from my old sage-green dress to make a bridle, and I tied them to the back of a chair. Oskar rode up and down the prairie, rocking the chair back and forth and flapping the reins.
Then he demanded a buffalo. I produced my cardboard suitcase, which he beat to death with his bare hands. He dragged the slain buffalo back to the tent, and we pretended to gnaw on buffalo meat. “You’re good at playing,” Oskar said earnestly.
I felt terribly pleased. But of course, one buffalo was not enough; he had to hunt another one. Then we killed a few wolves. After the last wolf was dead, he collapsed in the tent beside me.
I think about the conquistadors and how they left off kissing their wives and went sailing across the ocean to conquer a lot of innocent natives who would probably have preferred to stay in their hammocks and kiss their wives.
In The Hired Girl, I have tried to be historically accurate about language. This has led me to use terms that are considered pejorative today, such as Hebrew, Mahomet, and Mahometans.
I used Mahomet and Mahometan for two reasons. The word Muslim, which is now preferred, was not in use until much later in the twentieth century. And, as a reader of Jane Eyre, Ivanhoe, and The Picturesque World, Joan would have encountered the words Mahomet and Mahometan. These are the words that were used at that time.
Similarly, many Jewish people today find the term Hebrew offensive, but the fact that many Jewish organizations in Baltimore used it (the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, the Hebrew Literary Society, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, etc.) suggests that at the turn of the century, the word Hebrew was used with pride.
- October 15: Jonathan Hunt at Heavy Medal, The Hired Girl
- October 18: Betsy Bird at Fuse#8, Are Historical Heroes Allowed to Have Prejudices in Children's Literature?
- October 19: Roger Sutton at Read Roger, Which book will hurt which reader how?
- October 21: Justina Ireland at Book Riot, Accuracy or Bias: On Prejudicial Characters in Children's Literature and Beyond
- October 20: Amy Koester at The Show Me Librarian, Problematic Trust: Why Can't We Just "Trust Child Readers"
- October 22: Megan Schliesman at Reading While White, A Matter of Trust
- October 22: Justina Ireland at This is Not a Blog. Okay, Maybe It is. Dammit., On an Author's Expectations