Posted by: Lizzie Ross | March 23, 2010

Melodrama Indeed!

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama, Laura Amy Schlitz (2006), Candlewick, 389 pp.

Historical fiction set in the early 1900s is always so appealing to me. Add a dose of spiritualism and three Victorian Weird Sisters out to bilk the wealthy, along with an orphan–well, it’s unbeatable.

I heard someone say once that writers kill off parents so that the kids can go out and have adventures. Thus David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, Little Orphan Annie, the Baudelaire kids, Romulus and Remus, Tarzan, and so many others. It’s a time-honored trope, put to good use here as we follow eleven-year-old Maud Mary Flynn from an orphanage, through various moral tests, to a life of ease in a wealthy family. Towards the end of the novel, she reads a Horatio Alger book (the one about the poor bootblack), a clever reference on Schlitz’s part. (There are brief hints of other books that Maud reads, including Moby Dick that she can’t finish because it takes so long to get to the whale.)

The strength of this book lies in Schlitz’s ability to show Maud’s first view of so many things. Take this description of waves at the shore:

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 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 line of brightness, crooked 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.

Fire on water. What a perfect image, especially since these two elements eventually combine to bring Maud into the better life she earns. Schlitz’s writing is a pleasure, and Maud’s story strikes true. On top of all this, I learned some tricks of the spiritualist’s trade!



  1. Fantastic. Another one for my list. Thank you

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