March 28, 2012

The Grave Robber's Apprentice

by Allan Stratton
HarperCollins Canada
978-0-06197-608-7
256 pp.
Ages 10-14
March 2012

Far from the menace suggested by Allan Stratton's title, The Grave Robber's Apprentice is merely the occupation which an infant boy, retrieved from a jewelled chest awash on the shore, is anticipated to fill by his rescuer, Knobbe, a grave robber.  After twelve years, Hans knows very little about himself, except that he does not want to be a grave robber.  On the other hand, Angela, the twelve-year-old daughter of the Count and Countess von Schwanenberg knows that she wants to write and perform her marionette plays in all the courts of Europe.  But, when Archduke Arnulf decides that Angela will become his next archduchess upon her thirteenth birthday, their lives take an unexpected turn.

While Knobbe uses tales of the Necromancer, an evil sorcerer who speaks to the dead, to keep Hans in line, Angela seeks out this Necromancer to help her evade her fated marriage to the iron-handed (literally) Archduke.  Her plan to use a potion to mimic her death is thwarted by the Necromancer who betrays her to the Archduke.  Luckily, Angela is saved from suffocating in her crypt by Hans, who begs to join her in saving her parents from the Archduke.

Along their journey to the mountain refuge of Peter the Hermit, a wise man who had named Angela at birth, Hans and Angela are hunted by the Necromancer and his unsavoury minions, Weevils.  With the help of some extraordinary new friends, Hans connects with his past, Angela rescues her parents, and both children help restore order and integrity to the Archduchy.

Though an unusual plot for Allan Stratton, whose emotionally-charged books Chanda's Secrets (Annick Press, 2004) and Chanda's Wars (HarperCollins, 2008) address tough issues of AIDS, child soldiers and civil war, The Grave Robber's Apprentice actually feeds Allan Stratton's passion for theatre, particularly the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.  In his Acknowledgements, Allan Stratton describes his love of classic storytelling and attending shows and working, both on stage and behind-the-scenes, at Stratford.  As such, all the features of classic tales - an evil entity, weak-willed followers, the requisite royalty, a secret, some magic, and a quest or two - with the added flavour of Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies come together in The Grave Robber's Apprentice.  As the author eloquently draws the reader along, following the purposeful Angela to right the wrongs done by the Archduke, and Hans who haphazardly becomes enlightened about himself, Allan Stratton provides the charming theatricality of fairy tales and plays as the vehicle to advance the tale to its happy ending. (Come on, you knew there would be a happy ending, didn't you?)

Moreover, it's a reader's delight to identify the hidden references made to the much-loved classics.  Intimations to Shakespeare's Macbeth (e.g., the Necromancer's three prophecies), Romeo and Juliet (e.g., a potion to mimic death), The Taming of the Shrew (e.g., Bianca, and "no taming of the shrew"; pg. 231) and L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful World of Oz (e.g., "I'm melting! I'm melting!"; pg. 266) are but a few examples, and I fully intend to reread the book just to reveal a few more.

And, if you're still not sure that The Grave Robber's Apprentice is the amalgam of fairy tales and Shakespeare but instead a dark, menacing tale of thievery, let this last note convince you.  True to form, Allan Stratton starts the story with "Years ago,..." (that's "Once upon a time," right?) and ends it with the "The End."  How classic is that?


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In this author talk video, uploaded by Harperkids, Allan Stratton shares more about The Grave Robber's Apprentice and his writing.

  Uploaded by HarperKids on March 13, 2012 on YouTube

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