Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman

The middle ages has always held a great deal of appeal for me, so I decided to revisit an old favorite.  The Midwife's Apprentice tells the story of a young girl who has no name, no family, no home and not future.  All she knows is getting through today.  She is called Dung Beetle by the more fortunate villagers because she often sleeps in a dung heap to keep warm, and eats of of a garbage heap that never satisfies her gnawing hunger.

How Beetle ended up like this is unknown to her, she has not memory other than that of being homeless.   But one day, she is woken from her dung heap sleep by a sharp faced, sharp voiced woman, who is the village midwife.  In need of an apprentice, she takes Beetle home and over time teaches her to do the more unpleasant tasks associated with the job of delivering babies.

Beetle is smart and a quick learner, even though the midwife, Jane Sharp, always puts her down and tells her how stupid she is.  Jane never lets Beetle into a house where she is delivering a baby, the better to keep her ignorant of how it is done.  But little by little, Beetle learns.  First, she helps a village boy, Will Russet, deliver his cows twins calves.  Than she has an opportunity to successfully deliver a woman's baby, using what she learned from Will Russet's calves.  But when she is requested for a second delivery, she can't do it and must call Jane Sharp to finish the job.

Told she is too stupid and a failure for this kind of work, Beetle runs away.  She takes a job as an inn girl, again doing all the dirty work.  But little by little, be once more begins to pick up some learning, including some letters and words thanks to the indirect help of a scholar staying at the inn.  When she learns that the name Alyce begins with the letter A, a letter she now knows, Beetle decides this will be her name from now on.

One day, Jane Sharp shows up at the inn and Alyce overhears her talking to the scholar about her, and discovers that Jane didn't thing she was so useless and stupid after all, but she was disappointed when Alyce ran away when things didn't go well and midwives can't to that.

Having a name, having an identity, and considering about what Jane Sharp thinks of her, will Alyce be able to find the courage to really change her life and her future?

The Midwife's Apprentice is a small coming-of-age story that doesn't waste words.  Each chapter gets to the point, moving the story along quickly and with brevity, and yet much happens.  Slowly, with only a calico cat as her constant friend and companion, Alyce manages to transform herself despite many obstacles and even helps a fellow orphan boy along the way.  Alyce is a very sympathetic character, surrounded by some mean, selfish people, yet they all manage to impart something that helps her go from being Beetle to becoming Alyce.  There is even a hint of a romance possibility as Will Russet begins to see Alyce as more of a human being and less of a dung beetle.

Much as I like the character of Alyce, I really like the way Cushman shows her journey as one of process and something that needs to be worked on that has success and failure along the way.  Jane Sharp taking Alyce out of the dung didn't bring a complete change in Alyce's circumstances, but was the first step in away from her old life.

Karen Cushman won the Newbery Medal for The Midwife's Apprentice in 1996.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

A useful discussion guide is available on the author's website here
A more extensive student guide may be downloaded here

This is book 2 of my 2013 Award Winning Reading Challenge hosted by Gathering Books


  1. An interesting book. I've heard about it but never read it. Maybe when my daughter is older we'll read it together.


    1. Yes, these kinds of books are all in your future, Zohar, and I speak from expericence when I say that future is soon, especially if your daughter is a reader.

  2. This is ringing lots of bells with me, and yet I’m sure I’ve never read it. I must have read a review on another blog. It does sound like something I would enjoy so I will add it to my list. Thanks for another excellent review.

    1. I thought the same thing, but it turns out I had never read this book either. There must be a book with a similar name. It is a very fast book to read, but really so satisfying. I hope you get a chance to read and enjoy it.

  3. Great, comprehensive review, Alex! I love this book and think Cushman did a grand job of portraying a strong heroine in this time period.

    1. Thanks, Joyce. I also love this book and agree with you about Cushman's portrayal of Alyce, not an easy feat in such a short book.


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