A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama is a historical fiction with elements of magical realism by Laura Amy Schlitz and is outside of my usually indulged fantasy genre. I bought it for a graduate course, quit the class, then read and finished the book despite. That in itself is a pretty good review.
A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is written from the point of view of Maud Flynn, an orphan adopted by three spinster sisters, the Hawthornes, who hold séances for rich patrons to maintain their lifestyle. Maud lives as a “secret child” with the sisters and is asked to take part in their séances, acting the role of one particular child, Caroline Lambert. Sneaking out the house, Maud meets Mrs. Lambert, Caroline’s grieving mother, whom she begins to like despite herself, and whom she begins to feel guilty for conning.
During a séance, an accidental fire destroys the Hawthorne’ house. The Hawthornes and Mrs. Lambert flee, leaving Maud locked in a cabinet behind. Maud escapes and stumbles away from the burning house, and in exchange for her honesty, is helped by the owner of a carousel that both Caroline and now Maud have become fond of riding.
At first Mrs. Lambert despises Maud along with the sisters who have conned her but Mrs. Lambert comes to realize that Maud has reminded her of her daughter, Caroline, and Mrs. Lambert forgives Maud and offers Maud the loving home that she has so desperately wanted.
This is the external plot, but its morals are of discerning truth and untruth and appearances from reality; the true plot is Maud’s confusion about whom to trust and whom to distrust and what to keep secret and what to reveal. Perhaps as a result, the adults in the tale who are manipulating or using Maud seem significantly more interesting than Maud herself, and Maud, though she acts and acts against the orders of the adults in charge of her, seems more catalyst for their reactions and a foggy lens for the reader than she does a heroine who acts throughout the story. Though she was nice enough, Maud didn’t leave that much of an impression upon me, and I think that I remained with her to see whether or not Mrs. Lambert would be tricked and then to ensure that the sisters got their comeuppance.
The class for which this book was an assignment is called Giving Voice to the Voiceless. Maud is forced by the Hawthorne sisters to maintain her silence and hide her identity, not through fear of physical violence as with Sarah Byrnes in Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes but through fear of rejection, out of a belief that by behaving and doing all that the sisters tell her to do Maud can win love. Maud’s voicelessness is what the Hawthornes require and desire, and it is a boon to them. Her voicelessness hurts Mrs. Lambert. Whether or not it is a boon or harm to Maud is difficult to say without a lengthy discussion. Her singing voice first wins her the Hawthornes’ attention and they take her away from the orphanage where she’s been living. Her voicelessness ensures her continued situation with the Hawthornes, where she is provided with better food and more elegant clothes than she has ever been allowed and more personal attention, though whether she is more genuinely loved by the orphanage’s staff than by the Hawthornes is again up for debate. By remaining voiceless as the Hawthornes implore her to be, Maud distances Mrs. Lambert, who could provide her with an even better living situation and genuine love in addition.
Along with Maud’s enforced voicelessness, the Hawthornes employ a mute servant, whom they call Muffet. Maud befriends Muffet and begins to teach her the words for objects and later to read. Muffet and Maud together make the journey from voicelessness into a voiced and into a loving home. Schlitz seems to be very firmly of the opinion that voice and truth and honesty are virtues.
Maud’s is a supremely innocent close third voice, but I think I’d have liked her better if more of her impertinence had come forward in her voice as well as in her dialogue rather than being most prominently displayed in the labels of adults.
Schlitz, Laura Amy. A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2006.
This review is not endorsed by Laura Amy Schlitz or Candlewick Press. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.