The Rat-Catcher's Apprentice by Maggie Jankuloska
It is 1665. Rats have infested homes and alleys in Marie Perrin's provincial French town. Twelve-year-old Marie is set to become a maid, although she hungers for adventure. However, one mistake alters her fate and as punishment she is forced to apprentice for an intimidating rat-catcher. Away from her parents and twin brother, and handling gnarly rat traps under Gustave Renard's unusual mentorship, Marie must overcome a new set of challenges which come after a plague enters her town.
This is an absorbing story for mature independent readers, made even more so because of its parallels with today's life where it is COVID-19 that has run rampant. Despite the time difference, the preventative measures of masks, social distancing, hand-washing and isolation that Gustav insists his wife and Marie follow are the same as those employed today! But Marie also has to contend with a society built heavily on the distinctions and privileges (or lack of them) imposed by class and one's station in life, as well as being female - although the latter doesn't deter her as she dreams of a life of freedom unfettered by her gender.
While some readers may feel confronted by Marie's predicament, the author has created credible, well-rounded characters whose lives reflect the times in which they are set, but are even more intriguing because they can relate to the conditions of a pandemic - tough enough for some even with modern science, communications and vaccines. Despite the depths of her despair at times, Marie is spurred on by Gustav and Marion's belief that the bad times will pass and there will be joy again, and that, in itself, is a reason to share this story with your older students.
A debut novel by an author to look for in the future.
Themes: France - Social conditions -1589-1789, Rats, Pest control, Plague.