Friday, October 02, 2015

THE HIRED GIRL by Laura Amy Schlitz

Eds. note: Content in this post launched a discussion at Heavy Medal at School Library Journal. Please see A Native Perspective of The Hired Girl for an in-depth review that incorporates what I've said below. 

This is one of those posts people are gonna object to because it is one of the "one liners" -- which means that the book has nothing to do with Native people, but there is a line in it that I am pointing out.

It is "one line" to some, but to Native people or anyone who pays attention to ways that Native people are depicted in children's and young adult literature, those "one lines" add up to a very long list in which we are misrepresented.

Here's the synopsis for Laura Amy Schlitz's The Hired Girl, a 2015 book published by Candlewick (for grades 7 and up):

Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs, just like the heroines in her beloved novels, yearns for real life and true love. But what hope is there for adventure, beauty, or art on a hardscrabble farm in Pennsylvania where the work never ends? Over the summer of 1911, Joan pours her heart out into her diary as she seeks a new, better life for herself—because maybe, just maybe, a hired girl cleaning and cooking for six dollars a week can become what a farm girl could only dream of—a woman with a future. Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz relates Joan’s journey from the muck of the chicken coop to the comforts of a society household in Baltimore (Electricity! Carpet sweepers! Sending out the laundry!), taking readers on an exploration of feminism and housework; religion and literature; love and loyalty; cats, hats, and bunions.

Set in Pennsylvania in 1911, The Hired Girl has six starred reviews. It is currently listed at Amazon as the #1 bestseller in historical fiction for teens and young adults. Impressive. Hopefully, Schlitz and her editor will revisit the part of the book where a woman tells Joan "You, I think, are not Jewish." Joan responds:
"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 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.
Let's look closely at what Joan said.

The word 'are' in "I know there are Indians out West..." is in italics. I like that, because I often speak/write of the importance of tense. Most people use past tense when speaking or writing about Native peoples, but we're still here.

But then, Joan thinks "they're civilized now." Does that mean Joan buys into the idea of the primitive Indian who became "civilized" by contact with White people? Do the "ordinary clothes" they wear mean they're civilized?

I'm pretty sure people are going to say that--in asking those two questions--I'm not leaving room for people to do well, or try well, in their writing about Native people.

The fact is, this book is already succeeding and so are ones I've written about before. This post* isn't going to hurt it, but if it does give people (who read AICL) the opportunity to think about words they use in their own writing, that is a plus for all of us.

Native peoples in the U.S. were living in well-ordered societies when Europeans came here. We weren't primitive. Indeed, European heads of state recognized the Native Nations as nations of people. That's why there are treaties. Heads of state, then and now, meet with other heads of state in diplomatic negotiations. Saying "well, Joan didn't know that" is a cop out. She could have known it. Plenty of people did! She's a fictional character. She can know whatever Schlitz wants her to know.

*Replaced "My lone voice" with "This post" in hopes that I'll find other writing that points to this particular passage.

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