The Midwife’s Apprentice
by Karen Cushman
Interests: history, medieval history, British history, orphans, strong girls, hardship, learning a trade, coming of age
122 pages, 17 chapters
Also by this author: Catherine, Called Birdy; Matilda Bone; The Ballad of Lucy Whipple; Rodzina; Alchemy and Meggy Swan
The story of a poor orphan in medieval England, with not even a name to call her own, and how she finds her place and worth in the world. Alyce begins the story in a dung-heap – quite literally, as she sleeps under piles of straw and dung to keep warm. She is possibly 12 or 13 years of age, is generally known only as Brat, and lives by begging and stealing.
Tonight… she dreamed of nothing, for she hoped for nothing and expected nothing. It was as cold and dark inside her as out in the frosty night.
Jane the midwife hires the waif, dubbing her Beetle. Jane is no treat to work for; she is greedy, mean, and selfish. She only hires Beetle as her apprentice because she needs cheap labour and figures the girl is too stupid and scared to be any competition. But Beetle is smarter than she looks. As the girl grows more confident and begins to value herself, she chooses her own name – Alyce – and works hard to learn the midwifery trade.
This is a very unique coming-of-age novel, as the heroine literally begins with nothing – no home, no family, no friends, no name, no self-awareness or sense of self-worth. However once she has a roof over head and a little stability, she begins to painstakingly construct a life and future for herself. She even takes a younger boy under her wing in a desperate attempt to create her own family, and having this younger “brother” look up to her gives her great strength to carry on.
The depiction of medieval life is gritty and unromantic to say the least, as the reader is treated to a pungent picture of peasant life in that age. Alyce is a believable character and an admirable young woman; her efforts at bettering herself are inspiring.