Review of the Day: A Drowned Maiden's Hair
Some authors excel at first-sentence fabulousness. Laura Amy Schlitz is no exception. “On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing, The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” So begins what could well be one of the smartest conceits for a book I’ve read in a very long time. To my mind, the best children’s books are the ones that set up mysterious, possibly otherworldly, potential and then slip into reality without losing any of their magic. “The Secret Garden”, by Frances Hodgson Burnett might be a good example of this. So too is, “A Drowned Maiden’s Hair”. Telling a tale that makes use of early 20th century beliefs and cons, the title grabs the reader by the throat on page one and doesn’t let go for the entirety of the reading. And the ending? The most satisfying I’ve read in years. You poor readers who haven’t perused it yet. You have my deep and abiding pity.
Someone has adopted Maud Flynn and no one is more amazed than the girl in question. I mean, the day was no different from any other to begin with. Maud was locked in the outhouse for being disruptive (again) and then this beautiful old woman appeared out of the blue and just adopted her! The woman’s name is Hyacinth Hawthorne and she and her two sisters have taken Maud into their home for a very specific purpose. It turns out that the Hawthorne sisters are con artists who pose as spiritualists for the rich and unhappy. Want to contact your dear departed wife before you rewed? Call on Hyacinth. At the moment the sisters are desperate for money and they see Maud as their ticket to freedom. An extremely rich woman, one Mrs. Lambert, has offered a huge sum of cash if anyone can successfully contact her dead child. Maud’s role? To play that child. She cannot exit the house. She cannot play with other children. She must be good at all times. But as much as Maud wants to please her caretakers, she unexpectedly finds herself befriending Mrs. Lambert, seeing the dead girl she’s to impersonate in her dreams, and discovering that her new family may not love her even one little bit. She’s just a kid, but she’s about to face some tough choices.
One prejudice against children’s book I've heard is that the black and white of take on what is good and what is bad is part of the literary package. Some people seem to believe that subtlety and writing for kids are two elements that do not mix. Nothing could be farther from the truth and Ms. Schlitz is a living example. There are many people in this book that do morally questionable things. The Hawthorne sisters are three very different people, but all three have compromised their morals (it wasn’t hard in Hyacinth’s case) to take advantage of people’s pain for cash. Those that actively participate (Hyacinth and Judith) and those that don’t (Victoria) are all doing something wrong, but what they do varies. As such, Schlitz is able to write characters that are evil for what they do do and for what they fail to do (i.e. remove Maud from this dangerous situation). Weak-willed people who have the power to stop something bad and don’t are just as blameworthy as those people who inflict that same harm. At the same time, you sympathize with poor Victoria and even, to some extent, Judith.
My vote for best villain in a children’s book this year? Hyacinth Hawthorne. A person can rarely say they’ve met a one-of-a-kind bad guy in a children’s book, but I think Ms. Hawthorne takes the cake. First of all, you rarely meet an elderly flirt. Here’s how she’s described in the book, “. . . her hair was white, and her skin was lined. At second glance, Maud’s disappointment was less acute. The stranger was erect and dainty, like an elderly fairy.” Hyacinth easily seduces Maud into loving her right from the start, but their relationship is completely one-sided. Even if Hyacinth seems to be playing dress-up with Maud it turns out later that she’s just priming her for her performance in the séances. And when Maud is trapped in a cupboard as the house around her burns . . . well, let’s just say that Hyacinth acts less than heroically in that particular situation. Schlitz even manages to have her villain say, “Who would have thought the child had so much blood in her?’, invoking Lady MacBeth without being any too blatant about it. To read that line and understand it is to feel the shivers ah-running down your spine.
All around the characters in this book are top notch. Maud Flynn is completely believable as a love-starved but plucky gal. She’s not against rebelling once in a while, and it’s her spirit that keeps her from ever watering down into some wishy-washy heroine. I would be amiss in not mentioning the character of Muffet as well. When Maud learns that there is little love to be gleaned from her guardians, Muffet the housekeeper becomes her closest friend. Muffet is deaf and, by many standards, unattractive. Her name is one of Hyacinth’s cruel little jokes, as the woman’s real name was Anna and she’s desperately afraid of spiders. Her story of learning to read and write is magnificent, and she becomes one of the book's truer heroes.
Now there are few things better than picking up a book and finding that the author you are reading has the ability to place you directly in the shoes of the character you sympathize the most with. When Hyacinth slaps Maud’s hand for saying “ghosts” instead of “spirits” the shock of the action is palpable. Maud forgives Hyacinth, of course, but the reader is put on edge from there on in. Ms. Schlitz is just as comfortable invoking descriptions of the world around her relatively innocent heroine. How do you describe a child seeing waves for the first time? “Farther out to sea, they weren’t waves at all, only mounds, like furrows in a field. Then, somehow, each mound rose to an edge, thin as the blade of a knife. The knife-edge tilted, the wave coiled, and there was a moment when it seemed as if it must break – and yet it did not. Then a lines of brightness, cooked and notched like paper catching fire, rippled across the top edge of the wave. The water crashed and erupted, droplets spurting straight up and leapfrogging off the surface of the foam.” Boo-yah! THAT is what I’m talking about people. THAT is writing worth handing to your children. Now go do so.
It seems to me that the spiritualism movement was always ripe for the plucking, children’s literature-wise. Yet I can’t think of a single title, fiction or non-fiction, that has mentioned it to the extent of “A Drowned Maiden’s Hair”. Credit Laura Amy Schlitz with cleverly seeing an opportunity like this and taking it. It's interesting enough to keep kids reading all of its 389 pages, and smart enough to teach ‘em a little something along the way. Best of all? It’s fun. It’s a fun read and though I won’t tell you the ending I will say that few children’s books elicit the same sigh of relief as this book does. A magnificent addition to collections everywhere.
Notes On the Cover: Oh, Candlewick, you classy little organization. No sepia-toned disembodied child ridiculousness for you, I see. Look at that beaut of a cover. Ghostly and with a girl who looks believably like Maud Flynn. Doing a bit o’ internet research I have come to the unavoidable conclusion that artist Tim O’Brien is a genius. The best part? You can tell he read the whole book too. There are elements to this cover that aren’t even revealed until near the end. I love everything about it. Great packaging for a great book.