Maud is living in an orphan asylum in New England in 1909. She explains that in the asylum the girls are all judged as being plain or pretty, good or bad, clever or stupid. She knows she is considered plain, bad, and clever. She considers herself incredibly lucky when she gets adopted by a pair of spinsters. They buy her all sorts of clothes and books and she thinks she is in heaven. The only catch is she has to agree to be a "secret child". She lives on the third floor of their big old house, can never go out and must be absolutely quiet. She is so grateful to be adopted she doesn't mind that a bit. She idolizes her guardian, the older sister, thinking she is charming, kind and delightfully fun to be with.
As the story goes on she learns how to play the game they require of her. The sisters, it turns out, are spiritualist pretending to be mediums in order to get rich ladies to pay them for messages from their dead loved ones. Maud's job is to pretend to be the dear dead daughter of one particularly rich woman who has said she would pay $5000 for the chance to speak with her dead daughter.
Although Maud thinks of herself as bad because she has been told that, she tries to become good in order to win the affection of her new family. She begins to develop a more honest relationship with Muffin, the servant in the household who is deaf. She starts teaching her to read. It turns out Muffin is not witless nor is she the empty serving person the other adults consider her to be. As she connects with Muffin Maud begins to find herself.
As she begins to see the adults in her life more clearly through this experience she starts to understand her own experiences, thoughts and feelings better. When she meets up with her long lost older brother she is forced to confront her feelings of loss and abandonment and grief. As she watches and evaluates the interactions and reactions of the grown ups around her we see into her heart.
The thing I like best about Maud is that she is so sharply perceptive of the adults that run her life. She watches them closely in order to know when it is safer to lie and when to tell the truth. She measures each interaction, testing the thickness of the ice and calculating just how far it is safe to risk involvement of her heart. She retreats in humiliation when she risks expressing affection by using an endearment with her new guardian whom she adores and it is returned with coldness. It is fascinating to watch Maud come into her own as she discovers which adults are truly trust-worth and loving and which are hateful.
I don't know if Schlitz has any real life connection with adoption but I think she has done a masterful job of writing a character deeply affected by the trauma. Maud mourns her losses, longs for membership in a family of love and struggles to build her identity while bewildered. The one thing I question about her is the lack of significant dysfunction in her behavior. She is called bad and feels bad but she never behaves terribly. She has a keen conscience and is exquisitely tuned in to other's moral behavior. Perhaps she hasn't found a safe enough place to act out her own angst. I would love to hear from others involved in adoption after you read this book. Parents who have actually adopted children from foster care would have such a great perspective on this book. What a discussion we could have!