66 pages 2 hours read

Mary Downing Hahn

Wait Till Helen Comes

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1986

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Summary and Study Guide


Mary Downing Hahn’s eerie middle grade novel Wait Till Helen Comes (1986) is a ghost story that explores themes of family, friendship, and the emotional toll of death and guilt. Wait Till Helen Comes received a starred review from Booklist and was awarded the Texas Bluebonnet Award in 1989. The novel was also adapted into a Lifetime movie titled Little Girl’s Secret (2016), with Hahn making a cameo appearance in the film as the town librarian. Pagination in this study guide refers to the Clarion Books edition.

Plot Summary

Creative and impressionable, 12-year-old Molly loves reading and writing, while her 10-year-old brother, Michael, is a natural science enthusiast. Their artist mother recently remarried a potter named Dave and merged their two families. However, Dave’s daughter, Heather, resents Dave’s affection for Jean. Heather passionately declares that she hates Molly, Mom (Jean), and Michael and wishes they were dead. To sow discord between Dave and Mom, Heather lies that Molly and Michael are cruel to her, which protective Dave categorically believes. Molly and Michael are hurt by the accusations and the fact that Mom often takes Heather’s side. Mom and Dave urge Michael and Molly to be more understanding: Heather’s mother died in a fire when Heather was three. Michael and Molly think there is something wrong with Heather.

The family moves from urban Baltimore to a restored church in the country. There, the adults focus on their art, leaving Molly and Michael to their own devices but expecting them to care for Heather. Molly and Heather discover a graveyard on the property. Molly, with her vivid imagination, is terrified. Heather is intrigued. Heather discovers the 1886 grave of a seven-year-old girl that even Mr. Simmons, the elderly caretaker, did not know existed. The initials carved on the grave are the same as Heather’s. Heather becomes obsessed with the grave.

Molly overhears Heather in the graveyard, promising to do whatever “Helen” wants if they can be friends. Heather threatens Molly that Helen will make her and Michael sorry for their cruelty. Heather claims the initials on the grave stand for “Helen Elizabeth Harper.” Molly is convinced that Helen haunts the graveyard, but Michael scoffs at her, and Dave and Mom warn her not to frighten Heather. When Molly sees Heather talking to a strange shimmer in a ruined house, she becomes further convinced Helen is real. Heather now wears a silver locket she claims was Helen’s.

Michael and Molly visit the library to learn about the old house. Formerly the “Harper House,” its last owners, Mr. and Mrs. Miller, died in a fire. Mrs. Miller’s daughter from a former marriage, young Helen, drowned in the pond and is buried in the cemetery. Local stories suggest Helen’s ghost lures children into the pond to drown. Molly believes this information confirms that Helen is real and dangerous.

Family relations deteriorate. Dave gets angry at Michael and Molly, believing Heather’s lies that they treat her cruelly. Mom is hurt that they are not trying harder. Mom and Dave fight. Dave thinks Michael and Molly are trying to sabotage their relationship, but Mom knows that Heather lies. Molly sees Helen fully manifest and hears Heather promise to join Helen for eternity.

While Dave, Heather, and Mom are away, Michael and Molly return home to discover that their prized possessions have been destroyed and Mom’s paintings ruined, but that everything belonging to Dave and Heather is untouched. Molly knows Helen was the culprit, and Heather confirms that Helen will do much worse. Molly worries what Helen will do to Heather and privately vows to protect her, even though Molly is frightened of death and Helen’s power.

One stormy day, Molly finds Heather talking to Helen at the Harper House. Helen promises to be Heather’s friend and leads Heather into the pond. Molly dives into the water, pulls Heather above the surface, fights off Helen, and tugs the locket from Heather’s neck, breaking Heather’s connection to the ghost. Heather resists, wanting to go to Helen.

Sheltering in the ruined house, they discover the skeletons of Helen’s parents. Molly learns Heather’s secret: Heather accidentally set the fire that killed her mother, just as Helen started the fire that killed her family. Heather worries that no one will love her if they learn the truth. Molly reassures Heather and offers to build a stronger family together and be a true sister, if Heather will also try. Heather agrees. Helen appears, apologizes to her mother and stepfather, is comforted by her mother’s ghost, and vanishes.

Dave, Michael, and Mom rescue the girls. Heather and Molly want to bury the skeletons next to Helen. Dave agrees. The town holds a funeral and gives Helen a new gravestone bearing her name. Heather and Molly believe Helen is happy with her family. At Molly’s urging, Heather tells Dave her secret and is thrilled that Dave still loves her. The girls are glad they are sisters instead of enemies. Heather finds Helen’s locket again: It holds a nonthreatening message to remember her.

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