A Drowned Maiden's Hair: A Melodrama, by Laura Amy Schlitz, just won the first Cybils award for Middle Grade Fiction. As the subtitle suggests, this story is a slightly over-the-top melodrama, set in Victorian times. In the grand tradition of Gothic melodramas, orphan Maud is an unsatisfactory pupil, singled out for persecution, at the Barbary Asylum for Female Orphans, wishing that she could be adopted. Her dream comes true when a charismatic elderly woman named Hyacinth Hawthorne chooses her from among the others, and takes her home. Hyacinth and her sister Judith buy Maud beautiful clothes, and even books. They, and their third sister, Victoria, clean her up, and feed her the best meals she's ever had. And they don't beat her, which in Maud's world is pretty impressive.
But, this being a melodrama and all, things aren't entirely what they seem. Maud soon learns that she is expected to be a "secret child", and that no one outside of the household can know of her existence. She learns that the sisters are grooming her to play a part in the seances that they conduct. Over time, she learns who can, and who cannot, be trusted, and she learns to trust her own internal sense of right and wrong.
There's a lot to like about this book. The story is compelling, dark and mysterious, but with flashes of humor. The nature of the characters is revealed through action, rather than through what the author tells us directly. This allows the reader to come gradually to understand the characters, even as Maud does. The Hawthorne sisters' deaf-mute, crippled maid is a unique and fascinating figure. And the charming and compelling Hyacinth is unforgettable.
Maud herself is strong-willed and independent, definitely a candidate for the Cool Girls of Children's Literature. What I like most about her is that she's not perfect. She knowingly lies and disobeys, and ignores people who need her help. But she has her reasons, and she does the right thing in the end. She's also delightfully innocent. Here's an example, in which she sees a boardwalk for the first time:
The signs on the boardwalk vied for Maud's attention. FRANKFURTERS, SALT WATER TAFFY, ICE-CREAM SODAS, PING-PONG. What, Maud wondered, was ping-pong? It sounded delicious.
So cute. As historical fiction, this book offers a window into the spiritualism craze of the early 1900s. The details are consistent with what I've read in other books, and are not dumbed down in any way for the intended child audience. A Drowned Maiden's Hair also includes hints of actual supernatural events, leaving them vague enough that the reader can decide to believe or not believe.
Although this book is a melodrama, and features mainly female characters, I do think that it's a boy-friendly story, too. The brilliant opening scene has Maud "locked in the outhouse, singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic" at the top of her voice. There is plenty of action, and I think that boys will like the creepy parts, about a little girl who drowned in the ocean, and who may or may not be haunting Maud. One of my fellow Cybils judges (Brooke) suggested that boys could be drawn into this book by having someone read the first few chapters aloud to them.
Laura Amy Schlitz is not afraid to touch on dark and disagreeable topics, in her Gothic story. Beatings and mistreatments and betrayals, and deaths. But she manages this with a light hand. Here's an example, from when Maud's brother visits her at the Hawthorne sisters' home, and is suspicious of their motives.
"There aren't any men around, are there?" inquired Samm'l. "Coming to the house at night, after dark?"
"No," Maud said firmly. "They're old maids. And they're ladies," she added, as if that clinched it. Maud's ideas of social class were as vague as they were snobbish, but she knew that ladies did not do wicked things.
All in all, this is a well-constructed and utterly engaging read, one that meets the Cybils requirements perfectly. I highly recommend that you check it out.
Book: A Drowned Maiden's Hair: A Melodrama
Author: Laura Amy Schlitz
Original Publication Date: September 2006
Age Range: 10-14
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher, for the Cybils. This book was the Cybils winner for Middle Grade Fiction.
Other Blog Reviews: Bookshelves of Doom, In the Pages, Swarm of Beasts
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.