Urchin is a bold and visionary tale that breaks as many rules as it follows
The 2022 Governor General’s Awards nominated novel, Urchin, seamlessly blends fantasy with history, and fiction with fact. Within this Young Adult coming-of-age tale, Kate Story has succeeded in the enviable task of writing a book that is impossible to define—impossible because it is bold and visionary, and breaks as many rules as it follows.
The story opens and closes in New York City with the ravages of the Spanish influenza in the days following World War I. But it barely touches down there, serving only to update us on the eventual fate of the hero/ine of the remarkable tale that unfolds in the chapters between prologue and epilogue.
That story begins seventeen years earlier in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where thirteen-year-old Dor(thea) is concerned about the strange goings-on in her family home. Built by her great-great-grandfather not long after his arrival in the new world, the house is said to lie on a gateway to the land of the Little Strangers—a.k.a. fairies—who do not take kindly to the intrusion. In Story’s hands, the house itself takes on a character and comes alive with its endless sighings and shiftings.
But all that is swept aside, at least momentarily, when a man named Guglielmo Marconi arrives in Newfoundland to conduct a transatlantic experiment in wireless sound transmission that will soon revolutionize communication. Dor swaps her identity for that of newspaper boy Jack, to become Marconi’s errand boy. Before long, however, Dor/Jack is concerned that Marconi’s experiment may invite further trouble with the fairies, who have kidnapped her/his/their mother.
Written with a penchant for invented language that straddles beat poetry and old-time colloquialisms, the book is rife with invention, both in its prose and in the fantastical images it generates. Scenes out of HG Wells as much as Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique vie for attention. The result is constantly disconcerting—in a good way. It’s as though time has swallowed its own tail, turning St. John’s into a sci-fi setting for a gender-bending tale of adventure that reads like a cross between Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf.
All of the characters come fully alive, from the plucky Dor/Jack, through her/his family and friends, the people of St. John’s, all the way down to Marconi himself, a dour man with not much penchant for the foibles and foolishness of the young. This is a compelling work, wonderful in its execution.
Urchin is available from Running the Goat Books and Broadsides.
Kate Story is a genderqueer writer and theatre artist from St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, currently living in Peterborough/Nogojiwanong, Ontario. Previous books include Blasted, Wrecked Upon This Shore, This Insubstantial Pageant and YA fantasy duo Antilia. Ferry Back the Gifts, a collection of short speculative fiction, was published in 2022.
About the Author
Jeffrey Round is an award-winning author, filmmaker, and songwriter. His breakout novel, A CAGE OF BONES, was listed on AfterElton’s 50 Best Gay Books. LAKE ON THE MOUNTAIN, the first of seven Dan Sharp mysteries, won a Lambda Award in 2013. His latest book is the poetry collection THREADS from Beautiful Dreamer Press. His fifteenth novel, THE SULPHUR SPRINGS CURE, will be published by Cormorant books in 2024. www.jeffreyround.com