Laura Amy Schlitz

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair

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A Drowned Maiden’s Hair Summary

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A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is a 2006 historical fiction novel for middle-grade readers by Laura Amy Schlitz. Set during the Spiritualist craze at the turn of the twentieth century, the novel tells the story of an orphan adopted by a trio of fake mediums who put on séances to dupe the bereaved. As the main character understands the scheme, she starts developing her own sense of right and wrong, considering the way her choices affect the people around her.

The year is 1909, and eleven-year-old Maud Flynn lives in the dreadful Barbary Asylum in the eastern United States. Orphaned at a young age, Maud has been told all her life that she is bad—naughty and self-willed and constantly getting into trouble for misbehaving. Of course, this behavior is actually evidence of intelligence, and all Maud needs is someone to love her. Instead, she is bombarded with historically accurate messages that only “good” girls deserve love, that being good goes hand in hand with being pretty (which Maud is not), and that she should be more like the characters she reads about in books—beautiful, obedient, service children.

As the novel opens, Maud is in the middle of yet another punishment: She has been locked in the outdoor privy. In protest, she is loudly singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic. At the same time, Misses Hyacinth and Judith Hawthorne, two unmarried sisters, are at the orphanage looking for a girl to adopt. When they hear Maud’s voice, they immediately demand to take her home. Everyone is shocked that three such sweet and charming ladies (including their third sister Victoria) would want this scapegrace.

Amazed at her good fortune—she is the last of her three siblings to be adopted and has become convinced that she is simply unlovable—Maud commits to being as “good” as possible. This means taking the Hawthorne sisters at face value when they ply her with clean bathwater, beautiful new clothes, as many books as she wants, and delicious food. This also means not questioning them when they tell her to be a “secret child”—to never leave the house, and to hide from everyone except Muffet, a limping and odd servant who is deaf and mute.

Soon, Maud realizes that something is off about the sisters. The house, which at first glance appeared richly adorned, is actually shabby. And the ladies themselves aren’t the virtuous spinsters they seem. Instead, they are con women who hold fake séances in order to defraud wealthy patrons in the midst of their grief. Maud’s small size and beautiful singing voice make her an ideal part of the deception, as the sisters’ performances become increasingly elaborate.

The first séance Maud acts in goes off without a hitch, and a gullible widower thinks he has really had communion with his dead wife. However, the next mark is harder on Maud’s conscience. The sisters want to gull Mrs. Lambert, a wealthy woman whose eight-year-old daughter, Caroline drowned in the ocean at Cape Calypso.

Tired of being locked up in the house, Maud figures out a way to slip out of the house when the sisters are away and return with them none the wiser. When she gets away, she goes to play on the beach and to ride a merry-go-round at a local park. By accident, she meets Mrs. Lambert, who turns out to be a truly lovely person. Maud can tell that she is genuine unlike the sisters because Mrs. Lambert’s temper sometimes gets the best of her, and because not every story she tells about Caroline casts her as a little angel. Maud’s growing sense of right and wrong is very troubled at the idea of fooling this woman.

Maud begins dreaming about Caroline, and the novel just barely hints that there is something a little supernatural in the intuitive nature of these dreams. For example, Maud correctly ascertains that Caroline’s hair was brown and not blonde as the sisters have told her.

At the same time, Maud befriends Muffet and uses the sisters’ Ouija board to teach the illiterate young woman how to read.

Still, without better options, Maud ends up going along with the scheme to fleece Mrs. Lambert, using the information she had gathered about Caroline to convince her grieving mother that the child’s ghost is talking through the Hawthorne sisters. However, in the middle of the séance, there is a fire in the house. Maud just barely escapes with her life.

The novel ends happily. Mrs. Lambert takes in both Maud and Muffet, now part of a truly loving family. Meanwhile, the Hawthornes are exposed as fakes, and their ability to con anyone else is gone. Mrs. Lambert finally comes to terms with the death of her daughter. Maud stops dreaming about Caroline, but her mother now starts dreaming about her without being wracked by guilt.