Loved it. So. Much.
Eleven-year-old Maud Mary Flynn is a fine example of my favorite kind of heroine. She is so fab that she inspires Miss Kitteridge -- the Superintendent of the Barbary Asylum for Female Orphans -- to describe her to prospective guardians like this:
"Maud Flynn is a troublemaker," she said. "She has no respect for her elders. She is conceited and untruthful." She tapped the edges of the paper together. "She makes up boastful stories and tells them to the other girls. She shirks her share of the chores. I would like"--her voice changed from disapproving to mournful--"to state that every child in the Barbary Asylum is a credit to the institution, but I cannot speak well of Maud Flynn."
Excellent adoption promotion, right? While I will admit that there is some technical truth to what Miss Kitteridge says, what she doesn't mention is that Maud is extremely bright, empathetic, eager to please and loyal -- if the person is deserving -- and desperate to be loved. Despite Miss Kitteridge's attempt to dissuade them, the Hawthorne sisters adopt Maud.
On the way home, the Hawthorne sisters spend lavishly, buying her new clothes and books. While they are still on the train, though, she discovers that her new life comes with a strange condition: No one is to know that she lives with the sisters. Her existence is to be kept a secret.
Even knowing that doesn't stop Maud from feeling like she's living in a gorgeous dream.
Until, later, she is informed of one more thing: The sisters didn't adopt her because they wanted a child. They adopted her because they needed a child.
A gothic storyline AND spiritualism!? How could it get any better? Well, I'll tell ya: three-dimensional characters written with subtlety and compassion and a FANTASTIC villain. Good one, Laura Amy Schlitz. I will very definitely be watching for your next book.
Super, super, super read for any big readers in the 10-14 (or older, obvs.) range. Also try it out on fans of Joan Aiken and Leon Garfield. Though there isn't much of an actual fantasy element, I'd also give it to fans of Eva Ibbotson and Cornelia Funke.
Oh, heck. Just give it to everybody.