THE MIDWIFE’S APPRENTICE by Karen Cushman
Cushman, Karen. 1995. THE MIDWIFE’S APPRENTICE. New York, NY: Clarion Books. ISBN: 978-0547722177
2. PLOT SUMMARY
A homeless and orphaned young girl named Brat takes refuge with an irritable midwife as her unlikely apprentice. Set in the laboring times of Medieval England, where bartering is just as important as money, Brat is a girl with little hope for herself and her future. But, as she works for her survival, she learns more than she ever thought possible and finds the inner strength to fight for her place in the world.
3. CRITICAL ANALYSIS
Cushman takes us to the fourteenth century countryside to a small English village where Brat has taken refuge in a dung heap to keep warm. First thought to be dead, Brat is discovered by a cantankerous woman named Jane Sharp who is the only midwife in the local town. The characters are distinct and true to the nature of medieval country folk who work hard for a living and depend on the trade system during that time. Most of the villagers are poor and have a hard life, so they are reluctant to help others in need without something in return. Jane Sharp’s character is immediately dislikable as she constantly treats Brat, or “Beetle,” as she calls her with harsh words and constant belittling. She uses a variety of words when addressing Beetle, such as “Idiot,” or “Clodpole,”or “Nincompoop,” and even “lackwit fool” - just to name a few. It is no surprise that Beetle doesn’t think too highly of herself and is grateful for just any little food and shelter the midwife has to offer, even if it doesn’t fill her belly. The village boys in the story are wild, teasing, and mischievous (still much like today), and they bully Beetle and her cat any chance they get. It’s not until later in the story that Beetle, feeling confident as the midwife’s apprentice and utilizing the strong superstitious nature of people in that time, threatens them with spells and curses in order for them to leave her and her cat alone.
Cushman also gives the reader a history lesson on the practice of midwifery which was mostly common sense and the use of medicinal alternatives, such as various herbs and their known uses – since herbs were the only form of medicine during these times. Dialogue and customs of the community reflect the era, but also show that the drama and problems of the people are still present in today’s society, such as lying, stealing, and adultery. Beetle, in her time with the midwife as well as other people in the community, grows and changes from a self-loathing and pitiful little girl, to a young lady who can learn, feel good about herself, and determine her own future. This book is great to share with older readers 12 and up who can handle the harsh dialogue, inferred themes, and mid-level vocabulary.
4. REVIEW EXCERPT(S)
1996 NEWBERY AWARD WINNER
1996 ABC CHILDREN’S BOOKSELLERS CHOICE AWARD WINNER
1998 YOUNG READER’S CHOICE AWARD WINNER
SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL starred review: "With simplicity, wit, and humor, Cushman presents another tale of medieval England. Here readers follow the satisfying, literal and figurative journey of a homeless, nameless child called Brat. . . . 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."
BOOKLIST starred review: "This novel is about a strong, young woman in medieval England who finds her own way home. . . . Kids will be caught up in this short, fast-paced narrative about a hero who discovers that she’s not ugly or stupid or alone."
HORN BOOK starred review: “Catherine’s rebellious nature, questioning mind, and underlying kindness to all creatures make her an amusing and sympathetic figure; the vivid picture of medieval life presents a seemingly eye-witness view of a culture remote from contemporary beliefs. Fascinating and thought-provoking.”
* This book is great to share with young, but mature readers for a lesson on historical fiction from Medieval England. The verbal abuse that Brat receives throughout the story may be a little too much for immature readers to understand how it relates to the historical time period and the vocabulary on herbs may also be more appropriate for older readers.
*Collect other books written by Karen Cushman: CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY, MATILDA BONE, THE BALLAD OF LUCY WHIPPLE, RODZINA, and ALCHEMY AND MEGGY SWANN.
*Other historical fiction books about Medieval England:
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. THE SEEING STONE. ISBN: 0439263271
Crowley, Bridget. FEAST OF FOOLS. ISBN: 978-0689865121
Morris, Gerald. PARSIFAL’S PAGE. ISBN: 978-0618055098
Ross, Jillian. ALISSA’S TOURNAMENT TROUBLES. ISBN: 978-1889514321