Fourteen-year-old Joan scrubs, cooks, and does laundry for her father and older brothers on their farm in 1911 Pennsylvania. She adores her teacher and spends her few spare minutes reading Jane Eyre and other books Miss Lang has given her, as well as writing in her diary, which forms the content of this novel. When her father forces her to quit school so that she can concentrate on her work, and then burns her books when she resists, Joan takes the money her late mother had sewn into her doll’s skirt and runs away to Baltimore, where she takes up a new life as Janet, the hired girl, in the home of a wealthy Jewish family.
The Rosenbachs already have a housekeeper, Malka, who would never admit that her advancing age prevents her from completing many of the tasks she has performed for them over the decades. They have two grown sons and an eleven-year-old daughter, and since Joan is pretending to be eighteen years old, all sorts of uncomfortable predicaments come up with crushes and faux pas that are perfectly reasonable for a much younger girl fresh from the farm. Joan’s mother was Catholic, although her father had no religion, and Joan is taking catechism lessons from a local priest so that she can become a Catholic, too. Her earnest pursuit of spiritual knowledge is punctuated by surprising revelations about Judaism and, as she says, “the anti-Semitism.”
Joan’s voice reminds me most of Anne of Green Gables, a bookish girl who lives in the stories she reads and has a hard time reconciling her romanticism with the sometimes harsh realities of the world around her. Both girls have a sweet innocence about them that enables them to endure hard labor and transcend their humble station in life. Laura Amy Schlitz uses the time period to highlight themes of feminism and religious tolerance. Many children’s writers handle these issues clumsily, but Schlitz weaves them into an absorbing, sometimes humorous narrative naturally and gracefully.
I have been a fan of this Newbery-winning author since her first book, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, but this is by far my favorite book she has written. The endearing heroine, fully-developed secondary characters, and captivating story made me wish this book would never end. Coming in September, and very highly recommended for tweens, young teens, and adults.
Disclaimer: I read an advance reading copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.