Title: The Rat-Catcher’s Apprentice

Author: Maggie Jankuloska

Publisher: MidnightSun Publishing

Publication date: March 2022

Themes: family – including non-traditional families, belonging, resilience, the plague in France in 1665 and class structure.

The Rat-Catcher’s Apprentice, a historical novel for upper primary and lower secondary school students by debut author Maggie Jankuloska is a gripping novel that transports the reader to France, 1665 and into the Perrin family. Marie Perrin is twelve years old and has spent years being trained by her stern mother to become the maid for the soon to be countess, Josette. This role is not of Marie’s choosing and doesn’t at all align with her dreams or hopes for a life of adventure.

One fateful night an accident sees Marie’s employment prospects to work as a maid shattered. This also has catastrophic ramifications for her parents who work for the count and both are dismissed, leaving her family with no way to earn an income and living in poverty. As punishment, Marie is sent away from her family to work as an apprentice for Gustave, a rat-catcher.

Marie leaves her family home – her Mama, Papa and her much adored twin brother – heartbroken, filled with dread and consumed by fear. She travels to the outskirts of the city to live with Gustave and his wife Marion to learn the art of rat-catching. Marie is thrust into her apprenticeship and the transformation of her life begins on the very first morning of rat-catching as she is given boy clothes to wear and her long braid is cut off.

This new role sees Marie involved in gruelling work leaving her filthy and aching by the end of each day. Marie is a quick learner and becomes an asset to Gustave. She doesn’t wallow in the repulsive nature of the job and even has thoughts about her newly acquired skill being her ticket to travelling and a life of adventure she craves.

Marie gains the trust and admiration of Gustave and Marion, developing a close bond with each of them. They share their stories with her and this newfound knowledge explains their choices, actions and sheds light on their way of life.

Marie’s days strum along with a sense of predictability as she works with Gustave until they notice a distinct change in the mood and streets which are now devoid of life and houses are in mourning. Gustave is forward thinking about how people are dying from the “swelling blotches and fever”. He takes precautions to protect Marie and his family.

Despite Gustave’s measures as well as Marion’s knowledge of herbal medicines and their healing properties, events unfold that are out of their control. Circumstances see them fighting for their lives, suffering unimaginable tragic losses and making courageous decisions in the face of uncertainty and life threatening situations. But they have a strong moral compass and make selfless decisions, guided by kindness. They are single focussed and resolute in the paths they choose to walk, ready to adapt at a moment’s notice, aware that danger is lurking.

This arresting story full of twists and turns explores themes of class divisions, belonging, non-traditional families and resilience. It shines a light on the fact that everybody has a story and understanding one’s story develops empathy for their situation, removing what was once indelible biased views and judgement. Maggie Jankuloska’s evocative writing allows the reader to visualise the characters and connect deeply with their experiences. It is impossible not to become invested in the storyline because Maggie draws the reader in close to the authentic, layered characters, their emotions, the action and the intrigue. Despite the dark and at times harrowing periods, this is ultimately a story full of heart, hope, love, courage and kindness.   

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