Friday, January 22, 2016

For Money or Love?

I sit here tonight, putting off washing the dishes as I think about the book I just finished, The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz. In some ways, I have an awful lot in common with Joan, the protagonist of the book - I'd rather be reading or writing, but I'll get up here in a minute to clean the kitchen.

Joan is a 14-year-old girl who loves school and reading novels, but after her mother died, she's forced into the role of housekeeper for her father and three older brothers on a small farm. The work is unending, and it's hard, and Schlitz does a great job of showing us just what would have been involved for a woman keeping up a farm household in 1911. I felt overwhelming empathy for Joan when she narrowly escapes losing an eye after a cow kicked her, and yet the men of the household expect her to get supper together, even while her stitches are still fresh. At least they concede to eat a cold supper.

But it's not the work that's the worst part of her situation - what's worse is that she is struggling along in an environment in which no one ever expresses any love or concern for her or satisfaction with her work. In fact, Joan's father holds her responsible for her mother's death, and he's just completely intolerable. When he burns Joan's beloved novels to punish her for impertinence, Joan runs away from home to look for a position as a hired girl in the city (Baltimore, in this case).

Joan is lucky enough to get a position quickly with a well-to-do Jewish family, the Rosenbachs. In their household, she does the cleaning and helps the old woman who has been with the family forever with cooking. Joan thinks she's especially lucky because the Rosenbachs send out their laundry - no more washing clothes. And she's going to earn $6 per week!

It's not long before Joan realizes that, even without the laundry, there's still a huge amount of work, and a lot of it is heavy work, like rolling up the rugs and carrying them downstairs to hang over the line and beat them clean. That's the first truth I gleaned from the book; sure, the Rosenbachs had electricity and running water, but to paraphrase with a bad pun, housework, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Maybe she's no longer scrubbing the privy clean, but some other task is going to replace the one that was removed. As the Shabbos goy (Gentile worker who does tasks during the Sabbath), Joan seems to have as much work, if not more, with the Rosenbachs than she did at home.

One might argue that even if the workload is the same, Joan has a much better situation with the Rosenbachs than she had at home, for at least she's away from her hateful father. Throughout the story, though, there are numerous entries (the story is written as Joan's diary) that describe when Joan has been reminded of the social differences between herself and the Rosenbachs -- she is, after all, only the hired girl. Joan is not to associate with the Rosenbach's children (she does, of course). She is not to talk back or listen in on conversations or "meddle." Mrs. Rosenbach, especially, treats Joan with a certain degree of contempt; she is not unkind, unlike Joan's father, but she is superior, taking it as her right at one point to tell Joan she needs to work on her "deportment" so that she seems more like a hired girl.

That raises an interesting set of questions in my mind. Is it worthwhile to allow yourself to be demeaned, as long as you are getting money? I guess Joan is better off as a hired girl, because although Mrs. Rosenbach is as overbearing in some ways as Joan's father is, at least there is Mr. Rosenbach, who allows Joan free access to his library -- as long as she doesn't stay up past midnight so that she oversleeps in the mornings and is late to her work. 

The work/social differences are not the only theme, or even the most important theme, in the novel, but each of us reads a story within our own context, right? I don't know -- maybe I'm in a weird mood because this was the first week back at school, and it's kind of hard to go from days when I was my own boss back into having to keep someone else's schedule. Seems like the older I get, the harder it becomes to do that.....

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