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.
Land is crystal clear that she survived with the help of government assistance: Chapter 5 of the book, in fact, is titled, “Seven different kinds of government assistance.” She shows powerfully how difficult that assistance is to access and how inadequate to her needs it is. And she is equally clear about who doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt while she, as a white woman working her way through college, did, writing about a cleaning client—someone from whom she needed employment—railing, “Last time I went to the big store, I got in line behind a Mexican family … They used food stamps to pay for their food. And those kids were dressed to the nines!”
In that moment, Land writes, she kept cleaning the woman’s house, biting her tongue and thinking “of how much Mia loved her fancy dresses and shiny shoes, which I purchased with credit from the consignment store. Maybe Donna didn’t realize I was on food stamps, too.” She goes on:
I wanted to tell Donna that it wasn’t her business what that family bought or ate or wore and that I hated when cashiers at the supermarket said “On your EBT?” loud enough for people in line behind me to hear. I wanted to tell her that undocumented people couldn’t receive food benefits or tax refunds, even though they paid taxes. They couldn’t receive any benefits at all. Those were available only for people who were born here or who had obtained the documents to stay. So those children, whose parents had risked so much to give them a good life, were citizens who deserved every bit as much government help as my daughter did. I knew this because I’d sat beside them in countless government offices. I overheard their conversations with caseworkers sitting behind glass, failing to communicate through a language barrier. But these attitudes that immigrants came here to steal our resources were spreading, and the stigmas resembled those facing anyone who relied on government assistance to survive.
That’s a passage that speaks especially loudly in the era of Donald Trump, of course, while reminding readers that Trump didn’t create this kind of bigotry.
In some of Maid’s most poignant moments, Land permits herself to dream, briefly, of luxuries not available to her. There are the tickets to a Mariners game, offered to her by a client, that are “a dream I’d had since I’d been Mia’s age,” but that she can’t use herself because she can’t afford the gas money. Or the time she “noticed the hot tub with an empty bottle of champagne sitting in the corner” at a home she’s cleaning and “My body ached, yearned for even a chance, just one opportunity, to drink champagne in a hot tub.” I dearly hope that the book’s success has let her live out those, and other, daydreams. But you shouldn’t have to write a bestseller to get a single afternoon or evening of fun and relaxation, and it would be difficult for me, at least, to enjoy a kitchen that’s clean because someone else was doing painful labor and still living in poverty.