A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz (thoughts)
I have mixed feelings about my first audiobook of the year: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz. On the plus side: spiritualists! ghosts! the seaside! plucky orphan who loves to read! Gothic inspiration! ‘Victorian’ era historical novel set in the US! These qualities are not to be dismissed. Schlitz is wonderful at conjuring up scenes, so that I could see the story playing out, and the imagery was often remarkable (and occasionally goosebump inducing!). And Maud (the eleven-year-old orphan and our narrator)’s voice as narrator stays consistent throughout. The plot is well-paced and its liveliness will certainly engage readers.
So what’s the down side? Well, first of all sometimes it felt a bit too pat. Somehow, the inclusion of all those factors felt a tiny bit artificial rather than organic, if that makes sense. I had similar qualms about The Thirteenth Tale, which I know many of you loved unreservedly, so perhaps I’m just a bit too cynical for my own good. ;) But more importantly, at times I felt beat over the head with the book’s main themes. I understand that A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is aimed at children, but according to the publisher the intended age bracket is 10-14. At that age, I was certainly old enough to read between the lines more than Schlitz trusts her readers to do. If I had read this as a child (younger than 10, though), I probably would have loved it and just ignored the too blatant spelling out of certain things (see: my childhood love for C.S. Lewis and Frances Hodgson Burnett), but as an adult I sometimes became a bit frustrated.
So now you know why I don’t consider it a five-star read. But I still very much enjoyed my time with the novel and am glad to have read it. Let’s return to the good, shall we? In addition to all those factors that made me smile, I found the internal journey Schlitz takes Maud on quite powerful. You see, Maud is not a pretty child, not at all like the children who star in the books she loves so much. And she knows that not being pretty is part of why most adults don’t like her. She also knows her intelligence is part of the problem; I loved how self aware she was of adults’ reactions to her, because it’s true. When you’re a child, your whole life depends on the adults around you, so you’re anything but oblivious to your effect on them. At the same time, when she meets new adults, their looks affect her judgement of them too. Anyway, her black-and-white ideas of good children/adults and bad children/adults, loveable ones and unloveable, play a large part in how she filters her experiences.
This was a good book, which in my opinion had the potential to be an extraordinary one. I wish Schlitz had chosen to assume a more sophisticated audience, and I’ve read other books marketed to a similar age range that do so, so it’s not merely that. I still very much enjoyed the time I spent with Maud, and I’m indebted to the trip Schlitz took me on. In fact, I can still taste a bit of sea salt on my tongue.