Urchin is a weird, twisty tale full of unexpected directions. It weds electricity with fairy magic in 1901 St. John’s, as Guglielmo Marconi arrives to test his new wireless technology. Thirteen year old Dorthea has plenty of worries: she doesn’t fit in at her posh girls’ school; her family is ruptured after the deaths of six siblings in infancy or early childhood; her mother is distant and her father often absent; her house is said to be built on a fairy path which might account for any number of strange occurences. Add to this the fact that Dor’s feeling of being uncomfortable in her own skin is extreme even for a pubescent girl in a society with extremely rigid gender roles: she’s never really felt “right” about being a girl, and also she’s got a pretty intense crush on her best friend. In other words, Dor has a lot to cope with even before Marconi arrives in town and a friend who is also a newspaper reporter needs a spy inside Marconi’s operation to find out what the mysterious inventor is really up to.
When Dor slips into the disguise of Jack Kelly, she finds an identity that fits far more comfortably than her own — but she also discovers that the fae activity that’s been disturbing her home is more dangerous than she suspected, and is being exacerbated by Marconi’s experiments. Fairies apparently don’t like people interfering with unseen forces like electricity, and Dor ends up fighting unexpected battles — not least, the battle to discover her own identity.
Urchin is technically a young-adult novel, and would definitely appeal to young readers who enjoy a challenging read with a blend of realism and fantasy, but it’s also a great adult read, with a vividly realized turn-of-the-20th-century St. John’s as its backdrop and an unconventional protagonist who pulls us into this tale of fairy lore, modern technology, and self-realization.