Birdie McAdam has been 'prenticed to Alfred Bunce, the bogler. A bogle is defined in the excellent glossary at the end of this book as a "monster, goblin or bogeyman." Bogle's are very nasty creatures who feed on children. Bridie, aged 10, has been trained to lure them so her master can use his deadly spear. She has an exquisite singing voice.
"Alfred stood to the left of the fireplace, his salt in one hand, his staff in the other. He didn't speak to Birdie, who took up her usual position inside his magic circle. Though she'd turned her back on him, the little mirror she was holding gave her a clear view of everything that lay behind her: Alfred, the fireplace, the gap in the ring of salt. She only had to take one step - a single step across the white line on the floor - and she would be safe. But she couldn't do it yet. Not until they'd lured their quarry out of its hiding place... not until they'd baited their trap. Suddenly Alfred gave a nod. It was her cue, and it made her heart leap. The blood was thundering in her ears. When she began to sing, however, her voice was clear and calm."
The murky world of London (1870) is filled with these monsters along with some very shady characters. I really enjoyed the names used by Catherine Jinks such as Sarah Pickles (mistress to a gang of pickpockets), Elijah Froggett (a rag and bone man), Mrs Grunge (the workhouse cook), Jem Barbary (thief in the employ of Sarah Pickles but also a friend to Birdie) and Ned Roach (a mudlark or child who scavenges along the riverbank who is also a good friend to Bridie).
Miss Edith Eames is a wealthy single lady who has developed an interest in creatures like bogles. She wants to conduct a scientific study of these creatures in order to find better ways to destroy them - ways that do not involve using a young girl like Birdie as bait. This idea horrifies Birdie. She is proud to work as a 'prentice to Alfred and gains a sense of self worth through her success and skill. Miss Eames wants Alfred to use a gooseberry pie to lure the bogle. Birdie is burning with anger. "Had she been allowed to talk, however, she would have told Miss Eames to stick her pie where it would hurt the most. I'd like to throw it in her face, Birdie thought. She didn't say so, however. She just kept stomping along in Alfred's wake, grim-faced and silent." Needless to say the pie does not work and once again Birdie shines as she lures another heinous monster into Alfred's trap.
Bogles are not the only danger, though. Birdie and Alfred are asked to look into the shady practice of a doctor - Dr Morton. Some clothes belonging to children who work for Sarah Pickles have been found in his yard. As I mentioned when we enter this house you will feel you are really inside with Birdie. "the kitchen was damp and decrepit ... there was a smell of mildewed potatoes .... (the drawing room was filled with) an extraordinary array of ... knives and candles, apothecary jars, a bird's claw, a human skull, a carved stone figure, a shrunken head ... and a grotesque feather mask."
The other powerful aspect of this book comes from the detailed character descriptions :
"Sarah Pickes was a fat woman with a face like a withered apple."
"Her son Charlie, a pale, ferret-faced youth"
Miss Eames "was dressed in several shades of mustard, with a modest bustle, no flounces, and the plainest of hairstyles. Her pale face was shaped like a cat's, wide at the cheekbones but tapering off to a pointed chin."
Elijah Froggett "was memorable because he had a long stringy beard like a piece of frayed rope, and because he had never been known to remove his velvet smoking cap."
Here is a video interview with Catherine Jinks where she talks about A Very Unusual Pursuit. I am also pleased to see this book was reviewed in our NSW School Magazine last year. Read more about this book at the author web site. Here are some detailed reviews if you need to know a little more about the plot and setting. This is the first book in a trilogy. I am really looking forward to re-entering the world of Birdie and her colourful friends.
If you enjoy (believe me you will!) A Very Unusual Pursuit you might also look for the Barnaby Grimes series by Paul Stewart and The Truth about Verity Sparks by Susan Green. Later you might also be tempted to read Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.
In America this book has a different title (once again this change puzzles me) - How to Catch a Bogle is the US title. The Kirkus Review below is a perfect celebration of this wonderful book.
Jinks opens her projected trilogy in high style, offering a period melodrama replete with colorful characters, narrow squeaks and