Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Reading Through History: The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman (1995)

Brat, also known as Dung Beetle, is a homeless orphan in the fourteenth century with no prospects for the future, when Jane the midwife takes her on as an apprentice. As Brat, who later calls herself Alyce, enters the world of midwifery, she slowly begins to find her sense of identity and self-worth, and she begins a journey toward having both a name and a place in the world.

This short coming-of-age novel was extremely popular among my eighth grade classmates when it was published in 1995, but because it was historical fiction, I bypassed it in favor of other types of books that I liked better. A few years ago, I read a couple of titles by Karen Cushman that didn't impress me, and as a result, I continued avoiding this book, assuming it would either try too hard to fit in every detail about the time period in which it is set (my problem with Cushman's The Loud Silence of Francine Green) or would have an anachronistic feminist as its main character (an issue I had with Catherine, Called Birdy). When I decided to get serious about crossing unread titles off the Newbery list, however, I knew it was time to finally read this one, and though it was not a favorite, it was a stronger book than either of the other Cushman titles I've read.

For one thing, though the main character is apprenticed to a midwife, there is little in the way of detailed descriptions of childbirth. A reader should probably have a general idea of how babies are born before reading this, as it might be shocking to find that out from a work of historical fiction, but otherwise, the most graphic birth in the book is actually that of twin cows, not of any human babies. The greater emphasis is on Alyce's lack of confidence when it comes to helping laboring mothers and to her tendency to collapse under the pressure of Jane's criticisms instead of using them to learn and improve. Midwifery happens to be the career she and Jane are pursuing, but it is merely the backdrop for learning other more widely applicable skills.

Another thing I really appreciated about this book is the very concise writing style. Though I did have trouble connecting emotionally to the story, I did like the way the writer carefully selected the words she used to depict her characters and the overall atmosphere of the medieval time period. I wasn't as invested in Alyce's success as I typically like to be in the books that I read, but as detached as I felt from the story, I could still recognize the distinctive writing that led to it winning the 1996 Newbery Medal.

This is a good read for grades 5 to 8, especially for readers who are drawn to medieval stories and to coming-of-age tales starring girls who overcome great odds to bring about better conditions in their lives.

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