It was Mr. Coultas, he who jokingly accused Clare’s mother of cheating at card-dealing, who found the sweater up on the Hill, just behind my house.
It was my mother’s red cardigan jacket, and it was inside out.
Mr. Coultas held it out to me as if wanting me to take it. I stared at it. Why would my mother leave her sweater behind, on a cold and foggy winter night? Why was it inside out?
My mother was like a schooner slipped anchor in the dark.
She’d never abandon the sweater, and certainly not in that weather, in December. This is science, I heard her voice in my head. Rocks sometimes fall. It was absurd. And what had she been doing up on the Hill behind our house? Nobody lived up there.
Had someone pulled it off her?
I saw my hand reaching out; watched, as if it were someone else’s hand, as it took hold of the sweater. I let it fall into my lap, bold redness spilling off my legs onto the floor.
“She’s been towed astray.”
Old Nanny King rocked, staring at me with her black eyes.
“Towed astray, I says. And you knows it too.”
Dorthea, 13, lives in an ancient house in Newfoundland with her alcoholic father and distant, disapproving mother. “Dor” is imaginative, resourceful, and a misfit. She doesn’t fit in with her schoolmates, not with prevailing social mores, and not even within her own skin.
But Dor isn’t friendless. Chief among her companions is Clare, a neighbour and friend for whom Dor feels an attraction. Friend Murph is a reporter with the local newspaper, and it’s from him Dor first learns of Marconi’s impending arrival.
Murph has suspicions about Marconi. Officially he is here to test ship-to-station transmissions, but Murph expects something more ambitious is brewing.
“I need a spy,” he muses. As a girl, Dor can be of little help, but as a boy she would be employable, and have the run of the city. To gain access to Marconi’s tests on Signal Hill, Dor dons boys' clothing and assumes the name "Jack" to work as a newspaper errand boy. She is thrilled by the prospect of impersonating a boy. She feels more comfortable in boy’s clothing, and she and her friend Clare, with whom she is in love, find they are more attracted to one another when Dor is dressed as a boy.
Dor’s mother often ridicules her for her unladylike ways, but Dor begins to understand more about her mother’s tragic history after her mother vanishes and is ultimately revealed to have been taken prisoner by the fairy folk. Dor stumbles upon some otherworldly truths about her home that she must accept if her mother is to be rescued.
Urchin beautifully blends history and fantasy. Dor is intimately involved in Marconi’s scientific discoveries while, at the same time, is attempting to sabotage his work to free her mother from the magical fairies.
The author has created a bustling St. John's of 1901, where writers and performers and politicians mingle with an Italian scientist named Marconi. The novel reflects the ways science and art were more connected a century ago than they are today. At that point in history, while H.G. Wells was writing science fiction, Guglielmo Marconi was bringing the speculative into scientific reality.
Caighlin Smith was bang on in her back cover endorsement of the book's contents when she said "Protagonist Dor is perhaps the greatest treat of all; a clever, endearing underdog who you root for from start to finish. Kate Story handles Dor’s struggles with gender and sexuality with honesty and grace."
Kate Story is a genderqueer writer and theatre artist from St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador. Uncanny occurrences were not unheard of when Kate was growing up in the house on the Southside Road built by Kate’s great-great-grandfather.
Chris Laurie is an outreach librarian at Winnipeg Public Library in Winnipeg, Manitoba.