We join Kelly Butcher’s Book Talk Tuesday this week with a Newbery Medalist book The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman. When I tried looking for books with girl-powered themes, this was one of the YA novels that came highly recommended. And as luck would have it, I found it in our library.
A homeless ‘brat’ with no name. The first part of the book reminded me a little bit of classic orphan tales such as Oliver Twist, with this homeless girl found in a dung heap – unloved, famished, and barely alive:
How old she was was hard to say. She was small and pale, with the frightened air of an ill-used child, but her scrawny, underfed body did give off a hint of woman, so perhaps she was twelve or thirteen. No one knew for sure, least of all the girl herself, who knew no home and no mother and no name but Brat and never had. (pp. 1-2)
From those first few lines alone, I knew that I was in for a rare treat with this book. The story was set during the Middle Ages, hardly what one would consider contemporary (setting is Medieval England), and there is a likelihood that young children may have trouble finding themselves in the narrative. Yet the storytelling is such that one would be compelled to continue reading just to discover what life has in store for this homeless girl named Brat, Dung Beetle, and later on Alyce.
The no-nonsense midwife discovered her in the garbage heap, and with the simple question: “And you, girl. Are you alive or dead?” Beetle’s life changed forever. She found herself doing little odds and ends for Jane the midwife with the “sharp nose and sharp glance.” Being the only midwife in town, Jane was pretty much in demand and in need of cheap labor to assist her in doing tasks she considered too menial for herself. Jane realized that given Beetle’s lack of options, she could use the girl in exchange for her providing sparse meals and a roof over her head.
Neither good nor bad. One other aspect that worked for me in the novel was that the Midwife could not neatly be categorized as either kind or cruel. Yes, she is short-tempered, selfish (to the point of being an opportunist on occasion), and quick to wound with words – yet there remains the little fact that she took Beetle/Alyce in when the latter was near-death. There is also a scene somewhere in the end that would make the reader wonder about her intentions and perhaps even reconsider the initial impressions or judgments about who she is.
Being a ‘skilled’ worker. As the story progressed and Beetle did her chores (crushing bitter milkwort, boiling the wormwood syrup, grinding oats to flour among others),
I am reminded of stories of how it is like to be an apprentice, reminiscent of various ancient mythologies – movies that come to my mind right now are Karate Kid, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and of course Star Wars (hehe) – which might bring the narrative closer to children’s immediate realities. This particular wikispace also worked on the apprentice archetype and has a list of references that teachers might want to explore.
As Beetle grew in confidence (this came in spurts and stops), she felt a growing need (a certainty, even) to name herself. It seemed that she needed to ‘lose’ herself all over again to rediscover who she is – or who she wishes to be. After she has gone past the issue of survival (she has enough to feed, clothe, even bathe herself, and there remains a roof over her head), there is a gnawing need to know who she is and how she can meaningfully be a part of the world – the society that she lives in. How she came to be known as Alyce, I shall leave for you to find out. One particular scene that stood out for me though was when Magister Reese asked her about what she wanted in life. After much deliberation, she responded: “I know what I want. A full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world.”
Resources/Links for Teachers. I feel that as smooth as the storytelling is in this narrative, this might not be the first book that I would recommend to younger readers. While Newbery medalists are almost considered as akin to classics, I also feel that there should be a gradual build-up, especially among reluctant readers, to help engage them in the reading – such that it becomes a joy, rather than a burden or an assignment. That being said, there are a number of available resources/links for teachers that might prove to be of wondrous help to them if they so decide to use this in the classroom.
One area that teachers may want to explore would be the craft of being a midwife. Children nowadays may not even be aware of what a midwife is, and the important role that they played before there were hospitals, nurses, gynaecologists to take care of pregnant women. This novel would expand young readers’ worlds and make them wonder about a time long gone – hopefully to gain a deeper appreciation of the roads taken to have things the way they are now. This particular website provides details about Nursing and Midwifery in the Middle Ages and how it was perceived to be somewhat linked to witchcraft.
The Author’s Note also includes this kind of historical overview, the herbs used, and the various superstitions that often accompany the entire process of delivering babies into this world (no doubt, a wondrous miracle). Cushman also went on to share how midwives are perceived in different parts of the globe:
In France, a midwife is sage femme, wise woman; in Denmark, jordemoder, earth mother; among Yiddish-speaking Jews, vartsfroy, waiting woman; in Hawaii, pale keiki, protector of the child.
There is also a downloadable pdf Discussion Guide for Teachers from Karen Cushman’s website which includes quite a number of questions for adults/young people to share and a section on Author’s Craft. The site of Mr. Coward has a detailed list of vocabulary words, pictures of herbs and flowers used in the story, and various links of what life was like during the Middle Ages. This website on the other hand contains plot overviews, and questions for self-reviews.
About the Author (taken from the book):
Karen Cushman has a long-standing interest in history. She says, “I grew up hearing about kings, princes, generals, and presidents. I wanted to know what life was like for ordinary young people in other times.” Research into medieval English history and culture led to the writing of Catherine, Called Birdy, her first book, which went on to win numerous awards, including the Newbery Honor.
Ms. Cushman was born in Chicago, Illinois. She received an M.A. in Human Behavior and one in Museum Studies. Currently she is the Assistant Director of the Museum Studies Department at John F. Kennedy University in the San Francisco Bay Area. She, her husband and daughter share their Oakland, California home with two cats,a dog, and a rabbit.
The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman. Harper Trophy, 1995. Book borrowed from the NIE Library.
Winner of the 1996 Newbery Medal, 1996 Notable Children’s Book [ALA], 1996 Best Book For Young Adults [ALA], Booklist ‘Books for Youth Editors’ Choice, School Library Journal Best Books of the Year, 1995
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