57 pages 1 hour read

Mary Downing Hahn

Deep and Dark and Dangerous

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2007

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Summary and Study Guide


Mary Downing Hahn’s Deep and Dark and Dangerous, published in 2007 by Clarion Books, is one of numerous stories in the American artist and former librarian’s extensive catalogue. Hahn has published in the historical fiction, fantasy, and contemporary fiction genres, but some of her most acclaimed novels are ghost stories—including this one. Deep and Dark and Dangerous was well received by critics and was awarded Missouri’s 2010 Mark Twain Award for the best book for young readers and the Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award in 2011. It was also nominated in 2008 for the Edgar Allan Poe Awards in the Young Adult category. Although it is primarily a mystery horror novel, Deep and Dark and Dangerous is a continuation of Hahn’s trend of writing stories for young readers to enjoy and relate to. In this work, she explores themes of justice, reconciliation, loneliness, and alienation, as well as family secrets.

The story begins with the narrator, 13-year-old Ali, discovering a seemingly innocuous torn photograph. She can discern the hair and arm of a girl next to her mother and aunt posing by a lake. Their names are listed on the back of the picture, but the unknown girl’s name is partially torn off, such that only the letter “T” remains. Curious, Ali takes the photo to her mother, Claire. To Ali’s surprise, Claire is terse and evasive. Her father is similarly surprised by the reaction, and they put the subject aside. Ali, however, struggles to let it go and begins having strange dreams about T and the lake. A visit from Ali’s aunt Dulcie and her daughter, Emma, a few months later resurrects the subject because Dulcie intends to spend the summer working on paintings at the family’s old cottage at the lake that appears the photograph and wants Ali to join them. When asked about the other girl in the photo, Dulcie is similarly tightlipped. Excited to spend the summer babysitting her beloved younger cousin, Ali jumps at the opportunity, but her mother is resistant to the plan, fearing the dangers of the lake. Ali’s parents are eventually persuaded, and a reluctant Claire sends her daughter off to spend the summer by the lake.

After a long drive, Dulcie, Emma, and Ali arrive at the lake to find a bright, newly refurbished cottage. The weather at the lake proves less welcoming: The days are often rainy and foggy, and the nights are dark, chilly, and somewhat unsettling. Emma and Ali still find enjoyment on the beach while Dulcie works in a building she modified into an art studio. One day, a girl named Sissy, who is closer to Emma’s age than Ali’s, shows up and befriends Emma. It is an imbalanced friendship as Sissy is often cruel to Emma, and Ali is suspicious of her. One day Sissy lures Emma into the water and dunks her under repeatedly until Ali rescues her. Ali grows increasingly worried about Emma’s attachment to Sissy and the way her cousin’s behavior takes a negative turn to match her newfound friend’s. Ali is also on edge because her dreams have continued, and she learns that Emma is having strange dreams, too.

Ali and Emma are awakened one night by Dulcie’s screams from her art studio. When they arrive, they find it vandalized and an ominous message scrawled on a canvas warning Dulcie to “tell the truth.” Her aunt is obviously terrified but brushes off the incident as vandalism. Ali, however, suspects it has something to do with the photograph and her mother and aunt’s evasiveness. Sissy later tells them she suspects the girl from the photo, Teresa, is responsible and it is her ghost haunting Claire and Dulcie because they killed her.

Ali suspects Sissy is responsible for the incident in the studio and sets out to find out more about this mysterious girl. One day Sissy leads her into a graveyard and leaves a sweatshirt Emma lent her hanging on a gravestone marked with Teresa Abbott’s name. In shock, Ali realizes that Sissy and Teresa are the same person. While she reckons with this discovery, she learns Emma is missing and runs off in search of her. She finds Emma and Sissy in a canoe about to row out onto the lake. Sissy uses a doll from one of Emma’s favorite books to lure her into the canoe, saying she is taking them to stay with Teresa in the deep, dark water. Panicked, she joins them to keep her cousin, who can’t swim, from drowning. The canoe collapses when Emma stretches to retrieve the doll after Sissy throws it into the water. Both cousins are left clinging in the freezing water while Sissy tells them she will not stop until the girls’ mothers tell the truth.

After their rescue, Ali and Emma recount the events of the lake to their aunt. Dulcie confesses that she, Claire, and Teresa sailed out into the canoe and she threw the same doll into the water out of frustration. In the same way Emma reached and fell out the canoe, Sissy did as well—except there was no one there to rescue her and she drowned. The sisters lied about what happened out of fear of criminal consequences and let Teresa remain as a missing person, her bones never recovered from the bottom of the lake. Dulcie consults a lawyer and then makes a statement to the newspaper. Sissy tells Ali and Emma where to find her bones, and they inform police divers, who retrieve her remains. Claire joins Dulcie to face up to the secret they kept for more than 30 years. Ultimately, they are able to give Teresa’s remains a proper burial, bring closure to her family, and free themselves from their harrowing secret.