Friday, October 23, 2015

A Native Perspective of Laura Amy Schlitz's THE HIRED GIRL

Eds. note on Oct 25, 2015: Scroll down to see links to discussions of The Hired Girl that are taking place at School Library Journal, Book Riot, Reading While White, and on independent blogs.

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.


The Hired Girl
from a Native Perspective
For the TL/DR crowd

Mascots and Halloween costumes are evidence that 
 adults, much less children, do not have the 
background information needed to see Joan's 
thinking is wrongheadded when she talks about 
"civilized" Indians or when she invites Oskar to play Indian.

Discussing pejorative terms used in the Author's Note, 
but not including "natives" in that discussion 
suggests Schlitz herself may not understand that her 
depictions of Native people in the book is, itself, wrongheadded.

Praising The Hired Girl and ignoring concerns over
Native content is another, in a too-long line of, instances in 
which gatekeepers throw Native people under the bus. 


The Hired Girl
from a Native Perspective
An In-Depth Look

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.
With that passage, we get more insight into what Joan knows about Indians. If Jonathan is correct, doesn't it seem that she would not teach that stereotypical play to Oskar? Jonathan and others who are defending this book insist that Joan's mistaken ideas are corrected along the way. Where is the correction to playing Indian? I don't see it. 

Near the end of the book, Joan and David (another of Mrs. Rosenbach's sons) kiss and she falls in love with him. He is not in love with her.  She thinks about him all the time and at this part, wonders how people can stand to be apart (Kindle Locations 4099-4101):  
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.
There's a lot to say about that sentence, but I want to focus on "natives." Look it up in your favorite dictionary. You'll see it is considered dated and offensive. The Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary gives an example "Raleigh wanted the cooperation of the natives and treated the Indians with respect." Now--I believe that Joan would use that word. The problem is that it is not addressed in the story, and it is not addressed in the Author's Note either. In it, Laura Amy Schlitz's wrote: (Kindle Locations 4992-4999):
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.
Why didn't she address her use of "natives" in the note? 

Those who praise The Hired Girl are saying that it is clear to readers that Joan is naive and has mistaken ideas about a lot of things. They think we should trust the child reader to know that Joan is naive. 

People who say that we should trust the child reader must not interact much, if at all, with Native people. Do they not know that Native people across the country are sharing blog posts, videos, and posters, asking that people not dress up like Indians for Halloween? Do they not know that Native people are showing up, week after week, to protest the use of Native imagery for mascots, from elementary schools to professional athletic teams? Do they not know that Native parents are at schools again and again to ask teachers not to use books that dehumanize us, or to ask that schools not do things like the Land Run and Thanksgiving Dinners? 

Who is planning all those insensitive activities? Adults. Adults who ought to be able to read such activities critically. They can't. Or won't. Either way, the outcome is the same. And those who praise The Hired Girl think children are capable of reading critically when, all around us, there is evidence that adults can not, or will not read critically about things that are, on their face, problematic? 

Predictably, another defense of The Hired Girl is that the main character is Roman Catholic. "Not enough books about Roman Catholics!" they say. "We cannot let those problematic Indian parts knock this book out of contention for the Newbery!" Come January, we'll know what the Newbery Committee decides. Will The Hired Girl be yet another book in a long list of books that does something so well that the committee decides it has to overlook the problematic Native content? I hope not. 


Blogs discussing The Hired Girl are listed here. I encourage you to read through them, too. In particular, study contributions by Sarah Hamburg. Most Jewish people who are discussing the book are fine with depictions of Jews. Sarah presents a different view that aligns in interesting ways with my view of specific parts of Schlitz's story. I find the parts of the story, for example, where Joan thinks God wants her to convert the Rosenbach's to be troubling because Catholics sought to do that with Native peoples, too. A few weeks ago, the Pope was in the U.S. to canonize a priest who established and oversaw brutal missions and mission work in California. (If you see other blog posts, let me know and I'll add them.)


Update, January 12, 2016
Last week, I added Sarah Hamburg's tweets to a comment I made in the comments section of this post. Today, I'm bringing them up into the body of the post, because Sarah's historical research on Baltimore at that time is significant and I want her research to have more visibility. (Note: all the tweets are hers, but I included her name on the first one.)

Sarah Hamburg ‏@sarahrhamburg 8 Nov 2015
The Hired Girl is set in that year, and follows Joan, a Catholic girl who escapes her farm & is hired by a wealthy Baltimore Jewish family.

In the book, there are no references at all to Black Americans, aside from a newspaper article & people working as porters on the train.

And though the book focuses on religious difference, the only overt act of antisemitism = when a Jewish man is passed over for a commission.

Prejudice in the book is primarily that of individual beliefs & sentiments, which change-- and reconcile-- as people get to know each other.

But researching Baltimore in that year, this is what I found: (this book has an entire chapter devoted to 1910.)

In 1910, Baltimore passed a sweeping Jim Crow housing law.

The law came as a response to George Mechen, an African-American lawyer, moving into a white neighborhood in Baltimore in the summer of 1910.

His residence, at 1834 McCulloh St., would have been half a mile from the house where Joan lives and works in the Hired Girl.

Eutaw Place, where her employers the Rosenbachs live, would have been one of a few neighborhoods in the city where Jews could buy housing.

At a meeting in July, 1910, White residents signed a petition, and expressed fear that Black people would move to Eutaw Place as well.

Milton Dashiell then drafted a bill that would prevent Black people from moving into majority White neighborhoods, and vice versa.

Dashiell cited fear of a "Negro invasion" of Eutaw Place.

In December of 1910, City Solicitor Edgar Allan Poe wrote in favor of the segregation ordinance:

Mayor J. Barry Mahool, a prominent Progressive interested in women's suffrage and social justice, signed that first law a few days later.

This article and book describe what came next.

None of this is in The Hired Girl. Which is set in Eutaw Place, Baltimore in 1911.

I have been thinking a lot, especially this week, about how children's books present history. What is included, and how. And what's left out.

About stories of historical bigotry that focus on personal attitudes-- and their reconciliation through personal relationships.

What does this literature tell children about the past, and in consequence, about our present?

Diversity in children's literature isn't only about numbers. It is about who controls the story of our past and future.

Just wanted to add a link to this article here (with thanks to @debreese for sharing it):

HUNGRY JOHNNY is Amongst the 2015 Winners at Wordcraft Circle

Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers was founded in 1992. Yesterday, they announced the 2015 Wordcraft Circle Honors and Awards.

Among them are ones I've written about here on American Indians in Children's Literature, and ones for which reviews are still in process. Do look at the complete list for items to add to the adult shelves of your library.

I hope that librarians across the U.S. get copies of the award winning books. These books celebrate Native life and lifeways, showing the realities of who we are, but infusing those realities with love and the perseverance that characterizes us as a people.

Congratulations to the winners and their loved ones!

There are two winners in the picture book category. I'm not part of the deliberations but can imagine them reading the two books and thinking both were so strong that they couldn't select just one!

Hungry Johnny, written by Cheryl Minnema, illustrated by Wesley Ballinger, published by Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Sweetest Kulu, written by Celina Kalluk, illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis, published by Inhabit Media.

In the middle grades category is Tim Tingle's No Name, published by 7th Generation.

In the Graphic Novel category is Richard Van Camp's Three Feathers, illustrated by Krystal Mateus.

In the Trade Paperback category: Volume 2 of Arigon Starr's Super Indian, published by Wacky Productions Unlimited.

In the Comic Book category: We Speak in Secret by Roy Boney Jr., published by INC Comics.

In the Editor's Category: Lisa Charleyboy, for Dreaming in Indian, published by Annick Press.

The Pathfinder Award is a new category, given to the writer who is "pushing the boundaries of Indigenous literature." [Note from Debbie on 2/26/23: Due to questions about her identity, I am no longer recommending Erika Wurth's books. Prior to today, her book cover was shown below. Wordcraft Circle gave her the Pathfinder Award but I removed it due to my concerns over her identity.} 

Repeating what I said earlier... Librarians and teachers! Get these books. Native kids you work with will find their lives affirmed. Non-Native kids you work with will have that much talked about window into Native life.