Bibliography: Cushman, Karen. The Midwife’s Apprentice. New York, New York: Clarion Books, 1995. ISBN-13: 9780395692295.
Plot Summary: In a medieval English village, a cantankerous midwife named Jane takes in a homeless girl. This is not out of the goodness of Jane’s heart though. She uses the girl for chores and errands and always keeps her outside when she goes into villagers’ houses to help the women in labor. This does not stop the girl from peering in through the windows and learning what Jane does exactly to have a baby be born healthy and safe. The girl goes from being nameless to being called Brat to Beetle and then, finally, to Alyce. She bonds with a cat, whom she names Purr, befriends a former bully, and takes care of a little boy that was in homeless circumstances like she had been. Alyce finds that there is a place in the world for her and it is not in a dung heap.
Critical Analysis: Cushman does not hesitate to show how the world back then would treat a girl like Alyce. While today’s world is terrible with homeless people, back then was even less humane. Alyce is first known as Brat and is trying to keep herself warm by being in a dung heap. Cushman details how midwifes worked in this society, “In medieval England, midwifery was a less than honorable profession, mostly because it was practiced by and on women. Midwives worked unsupervised and unregulated into the sixteenth century…Medieval midwifery was a combination of common sense, herbal knowledge, and superstition, passed from woman to woman through oral tradition and apprenticeship.”
Cushman manages to balance the effectiveness of herbs and the superstitions of that world well to showcase wisdom and misconceptions of the past. In one scene, Alyce is talking to a cook, who states she is uncomfortable with human twins. “…Alyce [wondered]…why twin cows such as Baldred and Billfrith should be such a joy and a boon while twin babies were ill-starred and unlucky.” In some ways, Alyce is a stand-in for the modern reader. Because she was an orphan with nothing to her name, she is able to observe the people around her without any bias and comes to her own conclusions on matters. In fact, there are times she takes advantage of the fact that no one pays attention to her, such as when she is secretly learning Jane’s midwifery. The reader will find themselves absorbed into this world, not only by strong characters, but the lush, vivid ways Cushman describes this world. “June burst into bloom–daisies, larkspur, meadowsweet and thyme, foxglove and thimbleberry, purple thistle flowers and yellow whorls of blooming fennel.” This an accessible book for young readers that may not know too much about the middle ages.
Alyce ends up using the villager’s superstitions against them in one chapter. I cannot say exactly what happens, but she does get back at the villagers that have been cruel to her with the clever use of wooden hooves. Cushman understands her younger audience, so she does not overtake the story with so many historical references, but just let the world be. Instead, she writes it almost like a smooth fairy tale, with how Alyce grows into her own person, learning from different settings, from the midwife’s home to the inn. She starts out as a young girl that has suffered so much that when she tries to comfort her recovering cat, she does not know how to be kind. “If she had known of gentle words and cooing, she would have spoken gently to him. But all she knew was cursing: ‘Damn you, cat, breathe and live, you flea-bitten sod, or I’ll kill you myself.'” She starts learning how to defend herself and using her wits to survive, such as when she threatens the bullies when they try to go after her cat, Purr again. She threatens that she has a potion that could command the Devil to turn them into women and give birth. The bullies stop doing what they are doing, and the cat and Alyce make it back to the cottage unscathed. “It was fortunate that the boys never tested Alyce’s magic, for the bottle she shook so fiercely at them was naught but blackberry cordial she was to deliver to Old Anna on her way home from nutting in the woods…”
Truly, the themes of this work is perseverance and dedication. Alyce learns to keep moving forward and develop as a person that deserves dignity and respect like everyone else. Readers will cheer her on as they move through this story. They will also enjoy the beautiful scenery she writes, despite the harsh era this story is set in.
Review Excerpt and Awards won:
John Newbery Medal (1996), ALA Notable Best Children’s Books (1996).
Following excerpt from Kirkus Reviews, posted online May 20, 2010 and published originally March 27, 1995:
“How Brat comes to terms with her failure and returns to Jane’s home as a true apprentice is a gripping story about a time, place, and society that 20th-century readers can hardly fathom. Fortunately, Cushman…does the fathoming for them, rendering in Brat a character as fully fleshed and real as Katherine Paterson’s best, in language that is simple, poetic, and funny. From the rebirth in the dung heap to Brat’s renaming herself Alyce after a heady visit to a medieval fair, this is not for fans of historical drama only.
It’s a rouser for all times.”
Connections: Have the readers draw out a time they defended themselves, whether from friends, bullies, family, and whatnot. Ask them to state how they felt. Also, have them illustrate a scene where they are happy for Alyce and have them state why.