Monday, July 14, 2008

Genre #5: Historical Fiction - THE MIDWIFE'S APPRENTICE

Bibliographic Data:

Cushman, Karen. 1995. The Midwife’s Apprentice. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 0395692296

Plot Summary:

This book follows the down and out life of a homeless girl who finds herself becoming a helper and apprentice to Jane, the local midwife. The main character, Brat, has no other place to go, so she spends her time doing chores and unsavory tasks for the midwife, from dusting and sweeping to packing jars with miscellaneous ointments and jellies that the midwife uses during her birthing calls. As the plot continues, Brat’s name changes to Beetle, then Alyce, reflecting the personal growth and knowledge that she develops through the many events in the book.

Alyce’s growth occurs not only in her work with the midwife, but also in her adventures in the village. She learns how to outwit the boys who bully her; she befriends another young child who is homeless and hungry; she becomes a helper at a local inn. Eventually, Alyce finds a stronger sense of self. She recognizes her own worth and knowledge and is finally able to stand up for herself when she returns to Jane and is persistent in being welcomed back to learn more about midwifery.

Critical Analysis:

Cushman creates a vibrant and memorable character when she creates Brat/Beetle/Alyce as a midwife’s apprentice in 14th century England. Brat’s choice of language such as “By cock and pie, cat, I would have you live” (p. 9) emphasizes the historical setting of the novel and adds character to this character who is homeless and on the lowest rung of society’s ladder. Additionally, the minor characters included in the novel add a depth to the reader’s understanding of the villagers that existed in the 14th century. From the miller to the bailiff to the baker, each character contributes to the picture of society that Cushman is creating for the reader.

Furthermore, the novel incorporates numerous details that highlight the setting in which the story takes place. With discussion of things such as a ‘manor,’ ‘peasant,’ and ‘lord,’ the reader is reminded that Alyce is exploring the world of England in a century far removed from the present day. Also, the details of Alyce’s progression from homeless girl in a dung heap to midwife’s apprentice allows the reader to explore different areas of the village setting as she moves from place to place and interacts with different characters at different times.

Both Alyce and Jane’s dialogue allows Cushman to showcase her unique voice while building on the language of Medieval England. For example, phrases such as “redheaded lout” (p. 50) and “bottle of rat’s blood and viper’s flesh” (p. 55) highlight the author’s presentation of Alyce as a strong-willed character in the context of the time in which she lived in history.

Though the book focuses on midwifery and Alyce’s observations of Jane’s practices as a midwife, the novel is able to extend well beyond the 14th century due to Cushman’s well-developed characters. As Alyce changes her name throughout the book and becomes more observant of the people and places around her, we see her grow into a woman with greater self-assurance and confidence. The path she takes to reach this is one that can speak to people of all ages, no matter their time in history.

Through the unique perspective of a young apprentice starting from nothing, Cushman's novel is an authentic look at the life and times of a woman in 14th century England as a midwife. At the end of the book, she includes an Author's Note in which she discusses the history of midwifery and details about its incorporation into Medieval life. This added section helps the reader see the research that went into Cushman's writing and allows for the novel to stand on its own as a wonderful piece of historical fiction.

Review excerpts:

School Library Journal – “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 – “Cushman writes with a sharp simplicity and a pulsing beat…the characters are drawn with zest and affection but no false reverence…”

AudioFile – “The text is read at a lively pace with careful attention to the disdainful attitude of Jane Sharp, the midwife, and the innocent wonder of Beetle.”

Personal Reaction:

This book was entertaining and humorous, as it shed light on a time period with which I am less familiar. Cushman’s development of such a strong character and her details related to the medieval times helped me get a clearer sense of what life was like during the 14th century for those who were not of a noble class.


· Explore more superstitions by reading about them at Have a discussion and debate whether or not you believe in superstitions or not.

· Make a list of words from the book that relate to the 14th century and its society. Try to brainstorm today’s equivalents of those words.

· Write a short story highlighting what Alyce’s life ended up being like after she returned to Jane the midwife’s home.

Related Readings

Other Books by Karen Cushman
Catherine, Called Birdy

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple

Matilda Bone

Other Books about Medieval England
You Wouldn’t Want to be a Medieval Knight: Armor You’d Rather Not Wear by Fiona MacDonald and David Salariya

Archers, Alchemists, and 98 Other Medieval Jobs You Might Have Loved or Loathed by Priscilla Galloway and Martha Newbigging

Life in a Medieval Village by Gwyneth Morgan

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