A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Schiltz

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A Drowned Maiden’s Hair starts with Maud Flynn’s improbable adoption by the maiden Misses Hawthorne (Hyacinth, Judith and Victoria). She is told that she will be a ‘secret child’ but not given a reason; coddled with ice cream, books, and new clothes, Maud is not overly concerned. She also is enamored of Hyacinth Hawthorne, the charismatic middle sister and orchestrator of “the family business.” Set in the early twentieth century, the novel moves into high gear once Maud learns what this business is and the role she was adopted to play.

Schiltz’s novel have some of the negative melodrama hallmarks, including exaggerated villains and implausible coincidences; supernatural clues offered at the exact right moment; and a steady diet of character types recognizable from other gothic fiction. However, characterization is an important driving force of the action: Maud Flynn, the sassy and yet appealingly vulnerable orphan heroine, develops a growing conscience and sense of right and wrong through the story. While the adults are broadly sketched, Maud’s all-encompassing desire to belong to Hyacinth and her painfully earnest attempts to please are used by Schlitz in the first half of the story to subtly shade in the orphan’s vulnerability beneath the swaggering bravado. Maud’s emerging understanding of adults and love propel the story towards its conclusion.

Although categorized as Young Adult, I think this book is perhaps more of a juvenile title. It reminded me of The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, and clearly Shiltz is a big fan of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s as Little Lord Fauntleroy comes up repeatedly in the story. I wouldn’t say that Schiltz is on par with these three titles, but it is a worthy addition to the canon of orphans-who-have-been-hard-done-by. Despite its recent publication date, it has an older writing style than some of today’s titles. The plot unfolds slowly with gradually rising tension and chapters end with some resolution rather than a cliff hanger. One particularly welcome aspect of the book is the lack of a romance plot. The happy ending is a loving one for Maud, but thankfully she doesn’t meet a similarly orphaned and scrappy boy who becomes her husband in an unnecessary epilogue.

There are some flaws in A Drowned Maiden’s Hair. A random appearance from Maud’s brother fills in some of her back story, but then creates a loose end of a character without any further role to play. The added information could have easily been supplied by a recounting of Maud’s memories. Further, Schlitz tries to have it all ways in her depiction of spiritualism: the sisters are frauds, but one of them used to have a legitimate power; séances and the like are legitimate ways to help grieving people achieve closure, but they can also be cruel. I think the story would have worked as well or better without Schiltz’s decision to shoe-horn in some authentic interactions with the spirits.

Despite these few issues, those with a fondness for plucky and cheeky orphans, a bit of paranormal mystery, cruel villainesses and a happy ending will enjoy this book.

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