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The midwife's apprentice

by Karen Cushman


Reviews

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Gr. 7-12. Like Cushman's 1994 Newbery Honor Book, Catherine, Called Birdy, this novel is about a strong, young woman in medieval England who finds her own way home. Of course, it's a feminist story for the 1990s, but there's no anachronism. This is a world, like Chaucer's, that's neither sweet nor fair; it's rough, dangerous, primitive, and raucous. Cushman writes with a sharp simplicity and a pulsing beat. From the first page you're caught by the spirit of the homeless, nameless waif, somewhere around 12 years old, "unwashed, unnourished, unloved, and unlovely," trying to keep warm in a dung heap. She gets the village midwife, Jane Sharp, to take her in, befriends a cat, names herself Alyce, and learns something about delivering babies. When she fails, she runs away, but she picks herself up again and returns to work and independence. Only the episode about her caring for a homeless child seems contrived. The characters are drawn with zest and affection but no false reverence. The midwife is tough and greedy ("she did her job with energy and some skill, but without care, compassion, or joy"), her method somewhere between superstition, herbal lore, common sense, and bumbling; yet she's the one who finally helps Alyce to be brave. Kids will like this short, fast-paced narrative about a hero who discovers that she's not ugly or stupid or alone. --Hazel Rochman


Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Having focused on a well-born young heroine in her Newbery Honor debut novel, Catherine, Called Birdy, Cushman returns to a similar medieval English setting, this time to imagine how the other half lived. The strengths of this new, relatively brief novel match those of its predecessor: Cushman has an almost unrivaled ability to build atmosphere, and her evocation of a medieval village, if not scholarly in its authenticity, is supremely colorful and pungent. The protagonist here first appears asleep in a heap of dung; the ``rotting and moiling' of the refuse give forth heat enough to compensate for the stench. Homeless and nameless, she can remember no time when she did not wander from village to village. She is rescued from the dung heap by a sharp-tongued local midwife, who feeds her in exchange for work. Gradually the girl forges an identity for herself and learns some timeless truths. Some of the characterizations lack consistency (particularly that of the midwife), the plot depends on a few too many conveniences and the development of the themes seems hurried?but no matter. The force of the ambience produces more than enough momentum to propel the reader from start to finish in a single happy sitting. Ages 12-up. (Mar.)


School Library Journal
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Gr 6-9?With simplicity, wit, and humor, Cushman presents another tale of medieval England. Here readers follow the satisfying, literal and figurative journey of a homeless, nameless child called Brat, who might be 12 or 13?no one really knows. She wandered about in her early years, seeking food and any kind of refuge and, like many outsiders, gained a certain kind of wisdom about people and their ways. Still, life held little purpose beyond survival?until she meets the sharp-nosed, irritable local midwife, which is where this story begins. Jane takes her in, re-names her Beetle, and thinks of her as free labor and no competition. Always practical but initially timid, the girl expands in courage and self-awareness, acquiring a cat as a companion, naming herself Alyce, and gaining experience in the ways of midwifery. From the breathless delight of helping a boy to deliver twin calves, to the despair of failure during a difficult birth, to the triumph of a successful delivery, Alyce struggles to understand how she can allow herself to fail and yet have the determination to reach for her own place in the world. Alyce wins. Characters are sketched briefly but with telling, witty detail, and the very scents and sounds of the land and people's occupations fill each page as Alyce comes of age and heart. Earthy humor, the foibles of humans both high and low, and a fascinating mix of superstition and genuinely helpful herbal remedies attached to childbirth make this a truly delightful introduction to a world seldom seen in children's literature.?Sara Miller, Rye County Day School, NY


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