In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A captivating changeling

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Thanks to you once again, Eleanor and I have been engrossed in some gripping reading in the last week. Your latest birthday box included the wonderful novel The Moorchild, by Eloise McGraw. I'd never heard of it, let alone read it, but both Eleanor and I were instantly captivated.

The Moorchild is the story of a changeling. Moql is half human, half Folk (that would be fairy folk, flitting wild on the Scottish moor). She lives at first with the Folk in the Mound, learning to play tricks on people and dancing her way around, but when it becomes clear that her human side has left her without the magic she needs to survive as Folk, she is cast out. The Folk Prince steals a human baby to work as a servant and leaves Moql in her place, red-faced and inconsolable. (While reading these scenes, I had vivid flashbacks to Eleanor screaming with colic in her first few months of life -- Jeff and I used to wonder whether she was possessed. I wouldn't be surprised if colic was the origin of many changeling stories.)

Moql is raised as Saaski, daughter of the village blacksmith Yanno and his wife Anwara. Of course, she doesn't fit in in the human village of Torskaal either: she looks like no one else, fears iron and salt, has to stop herself from running up walls and trees, and is happiest out on the moor, where the other villagers fear to go. Old Bess, Anwara's mother, suspects early on that Saaski is not truly her grandchild. She's a tough woman, a healer and a loner, and after some violent reactions against Saaski becomes a sort of mentor to her. Saaski also finds companionship with Tam, an orphaned shepherd's boy, also an outsider, who roams the moor with his goats.

On the one hand, Saaski's experience is a metaphor for difference. McGraw dedicates the book "To all children who have ever felt different," and the ways in which Saaski is feared and consequently bullied by the children of the village (and ultimately the adults as well) feel true to the experience of any child who knows herself to be different from those around her. On the other hand, she is truly the thing the villagers and Old Bess fear her to be. Saaski isn't fully human. She doesn't understand hate or love the way the people around her do, and she has powers that they do not. Reading with Eleanor, I kept toggling back and forth, feeling protective of Saaski when she was accused of being other, and then remembering, Oh right, she really is.

Old Bess and Tam are her human counterpoints. Old Bess, it turns out, has a history much like Saaski's: she was abandoned as an infant, raised by gypsies, then placed by them in Torskaal because the gypsies felt it was where she belonged. She, too, feels she's never quite belonged. I loved the complexity of the people who care for Saaski most. For much of the book, Eleanor and I had to talk through Old Bess's motivations: is she on Saaski's side? Is she against her? Her ultimate empathy is deep and affecting. Saaski's parents, too, are wonderful characters. Neither Yanno nor Anwara understands the child, but both are fiercely protective of her, even when troubled by her differences.

The language is gorgeous, filled with Scottish-inflected dialogue and vivid details of landscape, so much good vocabulary to roll around in your mouth as you read aloud. Here is a description of Saaski going out on the moor soon after she discovers Yanno's father's bagpipes and is given permission to play them:

Her life had already begun to be two lives -- the humdrum one in the village, made irksome by the bedevilment of the other children, though brightened by Old Bess and the books -- and the other, truant life, high among the mists and bogs and wild, stony reaches of the moor. She was never sure which part of the moor she liked best -- the steep broom-gilded, heather-shadowed slopes always solid underfoot, or the sometimes steeper bogs, spiced with danger. After a dry spell a bog was merely a mat of thready, springy moss that you could bound across as if your feet had sprouted little wings. In wet weather -- which was scarier but exciting -- you had to pick your way across a bog, wary of the tall tussocks of sedge and cotton grass that marked the wettest spots, where a misstep could set you sinking and struggling into the sucking depths. But the glimmering little tracks she often saw there always traced a safe pathway -- though she was careful never to put a foot directly on that glimmer.

We finished the book tonight, and I'm already looking forward to the day when Isabel will allow me to read it to her, and we can pick it up again.

Love, Annie

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