A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz

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Goodreads: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair
Source: Library
Published: 2006


Maud Mary Flynn never expects to leave the orphanage where she is generally considered disagreeable and impertinent.  But then Miss Hyacinth Hawthorne arrives and wants Maud to live with her and her sisters.  Maud wants desperately to be loved, so she agrees to be the sisters’ “secret child,” staying indoors and hiding from visitors, all so she can help with the family business of conducting faking séances.   But as time passes, the practice of playing on others’ grief for their money starts to become an intolerable burden.  How much is Maud really willing to sacrifice to feel accepted?


The premise of A Drowned Maiden’s Hair–that of an eleven-year-old girl participating in the fake séances led by her adoptive family–immediately drew me in.  I imagined a a melancholy and slightly morbid Victorian setting as the main attraction, along with some perhaps quirky or deliciously creepy characters to people it.  Instead I discovered a story focused more on its characters than on the novelty of fake mediums, a story dedicated to probing questions of grief, love, family, and morality.

Initially I was not sure I would like Maud and feared I would not be able to sympathize with her on her journey.  She seemed unduly jealous of the other girls, petulant, and irritating.  Her way of “acting out” is to scrape her boots on the floor to make an irritating noise.  She seemed to lack the spirit even to rebel properly.   But then she was adopted and my heart melted.  It became clear that all Maud really wants is for someone to love her.  That desire hides beneath a somewhat grown-up exterior, but when Maud allows herself to let go and to feel happiness, one sees her as she is–a mere child aching for a home but afraid of being hurt one more time.

Once I began to understand Maud, the story opened up to me.  She is not the only one hiding a secret and, because the other characters are shown through her eyes, the true natures of the others is not readily apparent.  As an eleven-year-old, Maud tends to judge initially on appearance and she is susceptible to judging favorably those who give her sweets and treats while withholding favor from those who discipline her.  The reader thus gets to mature along with Maud, in a sense, learning who is really kind and who is really selfish only by watching the way they treat those around them–including Maud.

For Maud is often treated terribly.  She is an investment by the sisters to reap later financial gain and, as such, she is expendable.  Her case becomes that of an abuse victim, for her guardians use her for their own ends and toy with her enough to keep her happy to oblige.  But the story permits no victim blaming even as it induces readers to sympathize with the child.  Alone and perpetually unwanted, Maud is understandably desirous of trying to stay in this home, trying to convince someone that she is clever, good, and useful–and thus worthy of love.  She may be looking in all the wrong places, but you can’t blame her for looking.  Indeed, while seeing through her eyes, readers may find themselves hoping for the impossible, as well.

Maud has a way of focusing the attention of the story on herself, but that in no way means the rest of the story lacks interest.  Indeed, I found myself captivated by all the characters and desirous of learning all their fates.  Though the plot summary initially attracted me with promises of depicting fake psychic sessions, learning the means by which the sisters scammed their clients ultimately could not compare to the psychological study the sisters themselves presented.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is a surprisingly thoughtful look at the things we do for love.  Though ostensibly about the coldness of grief and death, it ultimately triumphs as a heartwarming story about home and family.

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