This is a blog specifically created for the purposes of my Literature for Children and Young Adults class at Texas Woman's University. Coming soon will be reviews of titles ranging from children's fiction to poetry to young adult novels. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Midwife's Apprentice

Cushman, Karen. 1995. The Midwife’s Apprentice. New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0395692296.

The Midwife’s Apprentice is the grim but exciting tale of Brat, renamed Beetle (for Dung Beetle because of the dung heap where Jane the Midwife found her), and finally called Alyce. At the beginning of the story, she is hungry and homeless and taunted by mean little boys. She begs Jane to let her work for some food in which case she becomes the midwife’s apprentice. Though she is glad to have employ and a bite to eat, Jane the Midwife is not pleasantest of company. As long as Beetle is compliant and servile, the relationship is fine. But the minute Jane suspects Beetle might want to learn the secrets of midwifery, the midwife becomes physically and verbally abusive—being the only midwife in the village and a monopoly on her trade, she doesn’t want Beetle to be any competition. By a mistaken identity at the fair, Beetle becomes Alyce with a face that “could belong to someone who can read. And has curls. And could have a lover before nightfall.” She realizes that she is more than a mere dung beetle. After helping the town bully deliver a laboring cow’s twin calves, she becomes increasingly curious about the midwife’s trade and pretends to be ignorant while secretly observing, studying the midwife’s treatments. The villagers begin to notice her skill and offering small payments in exchange for her knowledge. She even delivers the bailiff’s wife’s baby all on her own when Jane leaves it to die so she can deliver the Lady’s baby for a higher price. But after a failed delivery, Alyce left the village. She went to an inn and took on a job as a help maid in an inn. During her employ, she began to watch one of the residents, a man named Magister Reese, and through her observations learned to read and write. When she overhears Jane, who has come to the inn in search of her apprentice, telling Magister Reese that Alyce’s only failure was in giving up, Alyce decides to return to the village. There she is reunited with the young orphan boy, who thinks of her as a sister and works with him for a time before going back to the inn. A traveler and his wife happen upon the inn. While the wife wails in labor, Alyce watches on, petrified with fear and failure. When finally she steps up and delivers the baby, she realizes that she wants to go back to the midwife. Even when the midwife pretended not to have her, Alyce refused to give up and told the midwife that she would not go away.

The Midwife’s Apprentice is truly an astounding work of genius. While the story is a grim one throughout, it seems to realistically illustrate the position and situation of an orphan girl in the Middle Ages. Walking through her daily life of hunger and abuse, we get to interact with different people of her village. Then, in her successes, we have the opportunity to learn the details of one of the most important—though mistrusted—trades in history. Midwives had the dichotomous position of being revered and feared, a necessary evil and one of the only occupations for a single woman (or orphaned girl). Full of excitement, rich description, realistic (though rough) dialogue and interaction, this book is a wonderful window into a distant historical period.

The following passage is a good example of how the language, setting, characterization, style and plot all work together to illustrate the daily life of the period without being obvious:

“I am nothing,” she whispered to herself. “I have nothing, I can do nothing and learn nothing. I belong no place. I am too stupid to be a midwife’s apprentice and too tired to wander again. I should just lie here in the rain until I die.” And she fell again into a dreamless sleep.

But the next morning her young body, now used to a roof and warm food on cold mornings, pricked and pained her until she awoke. It was still raining and she was still a homeless failure. She stood up, picked some of the leaves from her hair, wiped her drippy nose on her sleeve, and looked around.

She knew where she was. Behind her were the village, Emma, the midwife, and failure—she could not go back there. She could not stay here in the rain waiting to die, for she was too cold and hungry and uncomfortable and alive. So she went on ahead. The cat stalked behind, stomach empty and feet wet, but unwilling to let Alyce go on without him.

School Library Journal says, “With simplicity, wit, and humor, Cushman presents another tale of medieval England… Earthy humor, the foibles of humans both high and low, and a fascinating mix of superstition and genuinely helpful herbal remedies attached to childbirth make this a truly delightful introduction to a world seldom seen in children’s literature.” says, “Karen Cushman likes to write with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek, and her feisty female characters firmly planted in history… Disappointingly, Cushman does not offer any hardships or internal wrestling to warrant Alyce’s final epiphanies, and one of the book’s climactic insights is when Alyce discovers that lo and behold she is actually pretty! Still, Cushman redeems her writing, as always, with historical accuracy, saucy dialogue, fast-paced action and plucky, original characters that older readers will eagerly devour.”

Publisher’s Weekly says, “Cushman has an almost unrivaled ability to build atmosphere, and her evocation of a medieval village, if not scholarly in its authenticity, is supremely colorful and pungent.”

Booklist says, “Cushman writes with a sharp simplicity and a pulsing beat… Kids will like this short, fast-paced narrative about a hero who discovers that she’s not ugly or stupid or alone.”

Newberry Award winner 1996

This book would be a great segue into discussions of what it meant—and means—to be female. A group of young girls could find common themes between what was and now remains. It could also be a good introduction into a discussion of the evolution of folk medicine. Another interesting idea would be to compare/contrast this book with Avi’s “Crispin: The Cross of Lead” because both characters begin the story with no formal name, they both learn a trade and both end in self discover, still the characters are taught in two different ways by people who may arguably be very much alike.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 11/05/06.


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