Eloise Jarvis McGraw's The Moorchild is dedicated "To all children who have ever felt different." I don't believe I read this dedication the first time round - I was not in the habit of reading dedications when I was eleven - and it is perhaps just as well, because I already identified with the book so hard that I might very well have picked it as my desert island book if anyone had asked me at the time.
At the center of this of course is Saaski herself, the moorchild of the title: a member of the fairy Folk who is exchanged for a human child because she's half-human herself, and therefore can never fit in the Mound. And yet she doesn't fit with the humans either, with her dark skin and dandelion fluff of hair and overlong fingers (I latched onto this finger detail so hard that I gave it to my OC at the time) and her habit of forever running away to the Moors. "Freaky odd," the village children call her, and her only friend is the tinker's boy Tam, who comes sometimes to the moors with his pipes.
Saaski's journey to find - not a place she belongs, but a person she belongs with - resonated with me terribly. The book still hits me emotionally when I reread it now. I'm even more conscious of the pervasive sense of loneliness in this book: not just Saaski's but Tam's, Old Bess's, even Saaski's parents Anwara and Yanno, who love their child but can't understand her.
But I have enough distance from it now to admire the beautiful craft of the book too, not least of which is the marvelous grasp of historical detail. Saaski's daily chores (milking the cow, setting the bread), and the yearly chores of a small village farm - swarming the bees, retting the flax - are woven into the narrative with perfect naturalness, as are the thick swarms of herb names that dance across the narrative as Saaski brings them to her grandmother, Old Bess.
I loved (and still love) Old Bess almost as much as Saaski: a tough, tart-tongued village healer, who holds her peace and keeps her counsel and watches over Saaski, and loves her even though she knows from the start that Saaski is a changeling child - perhaps because she sees something of herself in Saaski. Old Bess is not one of the Folk herself (in fact, the Folk have written runes on her door to warn each other of danger: even they know Old Bess is a force to be reckoned with!), but she's an outsider too, and yet has built up a life in the village despite that.
There's also a lot of beautiful, beautiful description in this book, as vivid and absolutely unobtrusive as the historical detail: the simple images of the moor as "broom-gilded" (broom being a yellow flower), or the scene where Saaski and her one friend Tam play their pipes together and Saaski's bagpipes sing "over and under his little pipe's shrill melody like a bramble vine twining a sapling."
And the metaphors McGraw uses to describe mental states, too, are beautiful vivid and apt. After a bad start to the day, Saaski rushes up to the moors to "let the music mend the jagged edges of the morning"; or Saaski's struggles with her mostly-submerged memories of her time with the Folk, which she strives to push away and yet sometimes yearns to remember, so that when someone mentions a familiar name, it "streaked across her memory like a shooting star and vanished into the general dark."
God, what I would give to write a metaphor like that. There are a lot of books I admire without wanting to have written them, but this one - I would give anything to write a story that means as much for other people as this has meant for me.