A Middle Grade Historical Novel
Rats have infested homes and alleys in the town of Nivѐal, France, during the summer of 1665. The memory of the previous year’s witch hangings is also still fresh in the minds of the townsfolk. Twelve-year-old Marie Perrin’s life is forever altered, after she inadvertently ruins a countess’ wedding gown. The act ruins her mother’s reputation as a seamstress and reduces her family to penury. As punishment, Marie is sent to apprentice for the “grotesque” and “brutish” rat-catcher, Gustave Arnaud, until her family’s debt to the count and countess is paid.
Marie is away from Henri, her beloved twin brother, and must learn to navigate through her new career, handling traps and killing rats, under Gustave Arnaud’s unorthodox mentorship. Rat-catching is not a task for girls, Marie’s hair is shorn and she wears breeches, no longer resembling and feeling like her former self. As months pass, Marie uncovers the gentler side to the rat-catcher and she becomes proud of her skills and purpose as a rat-catcher. Additionally, she bonds with the rat-catcher’s herbalist wife, Marion a woman who fled persecution from Florence for her knowledge.
However, Nivѐal is rocked by the spread of contagion, a dreaded illness seen as a punishment from God or curse from the English. Deaths begin to multiply and no is spared from the threat. Marie fears for the safety of her family and defies Gustave’s instructions by visiting her home, where she learns of her parents’ death. Crippled by bereavement, Marie and her guardians flee from the ravaged town after their house is set alight by a conniving merchant, Monsieur Dubois. Homeless and penniless, they trudge to the neighbouring, but hostile town, Figeac, where Henri is working as a shoe-maker’s apprentice. Marie and her guardians rescue Henri with the help of Henri’s brooding apprentice friend Lucien.
The four travellers are determined to start afresh, yet they encounter the villainous count in his hideaway. Marie’s company share the count’s roof and Marie and Marion help the new countess give birth, saving her life after a difficult labour. While tackling the count’s tyranny, the four travellers stick together and show resilience. Marie learns that “courage and kindness make a man noble, not money and a title”.
The four travellers find safety and peace in metropolitan Marseille, a place where “people are tolerant of strangers” and where Marie’s senses and mind are broadened.
The Rat-catcher’s Apprentice tackles the themes of class division, non-traditional families, belonging, friendship and female bravery in patriarchal times. It is suited for both female and male young readers, aged 10- 14.