The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House by Mary Chase, 1968.

Nine-year-old Maureen Swanson has a bad reputation in her neighborhood, mostly deserved.  The other kids don’t like her because she tells lies and picks fights with them.  Maureen is fascinated by an old, abandoned house in her neighborhood where the wealthy Messerman family used to live.  Sometimes she likes to pretend that she lives there herself. 

One day, while trying to avoid punishment for her latest antics, she finds her way inside the Messerman estate.  There, she meets a little man who turns out to be a leprechaun.  He tells her that she should leave immediately and not come back, but instead, she ends up exploring inside the house.  To her amazement, she finds paintings of the seven Messerman sisters, who disappeared from the house long ago, and the ladies in the paintings move when she turns her back on them.

When Maureen tries to tell others about it, no one believes it.  When she leaves the house, Maureen takes with her a strange bracelet that she finds on the ground, the same one that she had seen on one of the ladies in the paintings, a gold chain with pigeon feathers.  Later that evening, the same lady from the painting shows up at Maureen’s house, asking for her bracelet back.  The rumors Maureen has heard about the Messerman house being haunted are more true than she knows, and the wicked Messerman girls will stop at nothing to get what they want.

Years ago, the leprechaun came to the Messerman house along with a maid who was from Ireland.  Mrs. Messerman was a very kind woman, and Nora, the maid, was his friend, so he decided to stay.  However, the Messerman girls were always selfish and wicked.  One day, the eldest of the girls stole the leprechaun’s magic bag of tricks and turned herself and her sisters into birds so that they could always go where they wanted and do what they wanted without anyone stopping them.  Mr. and Mrs. Messerman were broken-hearted when their girls disappeared.  Years later, after their parents were dead, they finally returned.  They were not sad at all, but continued their selfish and wicked ways.  Because of the magic, they never age and can turn into birds whenever they like. 

Maureen is afraid to admit that she has the bracelet because she knows that her parents will punish her for trespassing on the Messerman property.  The next day, the women trick her into entering the estate again, only this time, Maureen enters the estate as it was in the past, when the girls were young.  Mr. and Mrs. Messerman are very kind to Maureen and offer to look after her until they can find where she lives.  Mrs. Messerman seems to know that her daughters are mean but doesn’t seem to know what to do about it.  She asks Maureen to help them if she ever has the chance.  It’s a touching moment for Maureen, who suddenly realizes that no one has ever asked her for help before.

Maureen, frightened by the girls, finally gives back the bracelet, and they all fly off again, leaving her alone in the past. How is Maureen going to get home?

This book also goes by the title The Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Garden. It is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.

My Reaction and Spoilers

This is partly a story about personal transformation. Maureen has definitely been the resident mean girl, but she gains a new perspective on her own life and behavior when confronted with the frightening wickedness of the Messerman girls.

The leprechaun tells Maureen that the only way to get out of the pretend past created by the Messerman girls is to think about what is going on in the real world.  When Maureen thinks of her mother, she hears her mother calling her and returns to her own time.  The leprechaun catches the birds in a net and almost drowns them in a pond, but Maureen stops him, telling him that Mrs. Messerman had asked her to help them.  The leprechaun releases the birds and tells Maureen that they will continue to be, literally, flighty birdbrains, but that their mother’s love will always be with them.  Maureen, having seen how cold and cruel the sisters were, never appreciating their mother’s love, learns to appreciate her own family more and to behave better. At the end of the story, she acknowledges that she heard her mother calling her and that call, the product of her own mother’s love and concern for her, was what helped her to return home. Maureen ends up better off than the wicked and flighty Messermans because she not only has a home where people care for her but she has learned to appreciate that home and those people and will now treat them better.

One of the things that I appreciated most about this book was the unusual way the leprechaun was used in the story. The story starts out seeming like it will be about ghosts in a haunted house, but that’s not quite what’s happening. Also, when leprechauns appear in stories, they usually have a pot of gold or play tricks on people, but the leprechaun’s role in this story isn’t quite the same.

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