My daughter loves Newbery award winning books. She has expressed an ambition to one day read all of the Newbery medal books from 1922 to the present! This means I frequently find myself lurking in the library corner that houses the Newbery winners. It’s not exactly a hardship. It’s also how I’ve discovered some new gems for our read-aloud times, including the 1996 Newbery winner The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman.
Now almost twelve, my daughter is tearing through books on her own, but we still have two read-aloud times: bedtime and mid-to-late morning. The latter is a school-time read and I generally try to keep it tied to something she is studying in history, science, or art. Sometimes we read biographies, but good, solid historical fiction is a big part of our morning read-aloud diet, and The Midwife’s Apprentice definitely fits that bill.
Set in an English village in the early 14th century, The Midwife’s Apprentice tells the story of a homeless girl taken in by a local midwife. She is given room and board and begins to help with the midwife’s practice, though it takes her a long while to learn the skills and even longer for her to realize that she’s learned them.
As a reader, I appreciated the way I got to grow in awareness along with the girl. You’ll notice I’ve not shared her name, and that’s because it takes a while for her to grow into one. At the story’s beginning, she literally doesn’t know who she is, and thinks of herself as “Brat” because that’s what she’s mostly been called. “You, girl,” is how the midwife first addresses her when she finds her sleeping for warmth in a dung heap. Having found her in such a place, the midwife, a very sharp woman (who happens to be named Jane Sharp) begins to call her Beetle, as in dung beetle. It’s not much of a step up from Brat. Part of the goodness of the story is watching Beetle begin to identify herself with a new name, Alyce, and then begin to realize that she’s not only worth a real name, but can continue to live and work in ways that help her to live up to a good name.
As a writer, I appreciate that Cushman doesn’t make it too easy on Alyce. Sometimes my temptation is to create characters that I’d like to hang around with in real life. My temptation here would have been to provide Alyce with a compassionate, loving mentor who took her in, became the older sister or mother she’d never had, and purposefully passed on her skills. Cushman, wisely, gives her Jane Sharp instead, “a woman neither old nor young but in between. Neither fat nor thin but in between. An important-looking woman, with a sharp nose and a sharp glance and a wimple starched into sharp pleats.” She clearly enjoyed writing that line, as she uses it again, exactly, a handful of pages later, as if to emphasize that Alyce’s first impression of the woman was solid.
Jane is not a terribly happy woman, nor a particularly kind one. She views Alyce as cheap labor and sets her to fetch and carry, though some of the fetching turns out to be for herbs, which gives Alyce some of her first understanding of a midwife’s tasks. Still, almost everything Alyce learns, she learns the hard way, the long way around. She watches everything the midwife does, sometimes sneaking up to the window of a cottage where a woman is about to give birth (Jane doesn’t usually let her stay inside to help). This means she picks up on both the skills Jane possesses and her many superstitious habits. There were plenty of those surrounding child birth in the Middle Ages, some involving religious relics and others just secular eccentric practices. Cushman packs in interesting details about these and about daily life in a medieval English village, where few people could read and hardly anyone ever bathed.
As a teacher and parent, I appreciated the details that went into building up a picture of every day life in the Middles Ages. There’s a surprising realism to this story, from the dung heap where Alyce first sleeps to the soiled straw on which many of the village women give birth to the rough ways the villagers treat one another. Alyce is bullied by both Jane and a number of the village boys. Young readers will, I think, come away with an authentic sense of life in those days, not a sanitized or over-glamorous one. It worked well to read this book in conjunction with medieval history studies around the 13th-14th centuries. Because it touches on issues like midwifery, medicinal remedies, food, and cleanliness (or lack thereof), you can easily tie it into studies of every day life or important historical issues like famine and plague.
Teachers and parents should be aware that there are a few gritty details during birth scenes, though nothing overly technical. Likewise, there’s a scene where Alyce follows Jane to figure out what secret she’s keeping, only to discover her “hugging and kissing” the baker, who is married with thirteen children. This scene is played for its humor – Alyce is so startled she falls out of a tree! – and Jane and the baker’s infidelity doesn’t come into the story again. Likewise, there’s a scene where a young couple in the village is caught “cuddling” in the haymow, and the boy has to gather up his “breeches” before he flees. Again this is played primarily for humor, as a series of pranks that Alyce plays on the gullible villagers who are too prone to look for and blame the devil for every bit of bad behavior that anyone is engaged in. Parts of that chapter might go a little over the heads of readers on the younger end of 9-12.
Despite the fact that this is a Newbery winning novel, I’ve not been wildly impressed by my admittedly cursory look at some of the literary guides and study helps available for free online. A good round-up of what’s available, in both paid and free resources, can be found here.
My favorite character quality take-away from this novel is how Alyce grows into an awareness of the importance of perseverance. Although she faces many practical obstacles, the chief conflict is inside her. She learns many things: how to work hard, how to be kind to others, how to read (yes, in a neat twist in the final third of the book, she really does)! She also learns skills that enable her to deliver a baby in an emergency, also near the end of the story. This comes after her failure to help another woman deliver a baby and her running away from the village to a work in a nearby inn. Alyce’s greatest learning is that failure doesn’t have to be the end of something. She can learn from it and try again. Surprisingly, she learns this best from the difficult and not-so-encouraging Jane, who lets her know in no uncertain terms that she needs an apprentice who won’t give up when things get hard. Waiting to see if Alyce can find the inner strength to step into that role drives the novel’s satisfying conclusion.