How could Stephanie Land’s book Maid not make a splash, with the opening sentence, “My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter,” and a follow-through that lives up to the impact of that sentence? A splash it has made, debuting at number three on The New York Times bestseller list over the winter, and now being turned into a TV show and making former President Barack Obama's summer reading list. Land’s book tells the story of years spent scraping by as a single mother to her daughter Mia, patching together government aid and work cleaning houses while coping with inadequate housing, inadequate child care, an abusive ex, and the constant stress and pain involved in all those things. But it’s also a challenge to its readers, pushing us to reckon with the comprehensive stresses of poverty, the importance of government assistance, and—for those who can afford to have someone else clean their homes—how to do the ethical thing (more on that coming soon, at least for people living in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Boston).
Maid is a beautiful book and a sad book and even, at times, a joyful book—a story of a mother’s love for her daughter—but most of all it’s an important book about the U.S. economy and what it does to people. Maid is filled with keen observations of the houses Land cleaned—she first broke through as a writer with a Vox piece about what she saw in those homes—and devastating details about what it takes, as a low-paid service worker, to make comparatively wealthy customers happy: ignoring the copious amounts of porn in one house, or the pills in another, dealing with the dog poop on a beige carpet. Getting every last hair out of a tub coated in the owner’s bath oils.
Land also weaves into that narrative the insecurity, indignity, and fear involved in poverty—the doctors who suggest she’s a bad mother because poverty is making her daughter sick; the moments when a client does treat her as a human being, a peer, moments that shine through because they’re so unusual; the vulnerability to heat and cold and mold in a shoddy apartment; the need to keep an old car running; the physical pain and hunger. “I walked along a deep precipice of hopelessness,” she writes. “Each morning brought a constant, lip-chewing stress over making it to work and getting home without my car breaking down. My back ached constantly. I dampened my hunger pangs with coffee. It felt impossible to climb out of this hole.”
Part of the reason this works so powerfully within the framework of the stories the United States tells about itself, of course, is because Land is so middle-class in her tastes and aspirations—because the next sentence in the above passage is, “My only real hope was school: an education would be my token to freedom.” Because she wants her daughter to eat fresh berries and drink organic milk, because she see books in a man’s apartment as an attraction, because she is someone who can write her way out of poverty. She is tailor-made to appeal even to people who don’t support a strong safety net or who don’t see low-wage workers as worthy of respect. But Maid is an important book about U.S. politics precisely because Land is constantly aware of how exactly that works in her life—how the people around her don't see her as someone who is, who could be, desperately poor. How her friends and employers don't imagine her to be on government aid as they sneer at and insult people on government aid, people that she keenly points out are always seen as other in a way she is not.
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