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REVIEW: Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Dear Ms. Cushman,

The title of this book rang a bell when I saw it for sale. Since it has such a positive reputation and was a Newbery Honor book, I felt confident that it would be worth my time to seek out and try. I immediately fell for Catherine, called Birdy. But I also acknowledge that if a young woman who might act and think like Birdy actually existed in England in the year 1290, she would have been one in a million.

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Birdy’s diary faithfully records a year of her life beginning when she was fourteen. It’s funny and honest in that Birdy doesn’t try to make herself out to be better than she’s actually behaved. But then lots of times Birdy doesn’t think she’s done anything wrong even when her mother,her nurse and the beast, aka her father, see it otherwise. It shows her initially rebelling against the standard activities that would take up most of the day of a girl in her position. She hates sewing, she hates embroidery, she hates standing and stirring cauldrons of nasty smelling soap. She hates fleas and the thought of marrying the kind of men her father keeps considering as potential husbands for her. She wants freedom – as she knows it – and a choice in her life. She sounds very much like a teenager today. Is this historically correct? Probably not to the degree that you’ve shown here but then you’re writing the book for today’s modern young women. Females of 1290 would no doubt view Birdy as a strange and alien creature while an accurate depiction (if that was even possible for us to achieve) would bore modern girls beyond belief.

During the course of the year, Birdy dreams of running off and taking up a variety of different trades and jobs. One by one, however, she rules them out or is told – sometimes gently and sometimes not – how unsuitable she is for them. Being a knight on crusade? Or a monk drawing illuminated books? Or a puppeteer at a fair? Or even just a villager? No, none of these are possible for her. So you have her use her brain to try and swing events to go her way instead of you turning her into a dreaded anachronism. In various ways, Birdy presents herself to these awful suitors as the last thing they want in a wife. And for the most part it works, much to her mother’s distress and father’s anger. Birdy might dream of running off and becoming all sorts of unsuitable things but when the rubber meets the road she fights in the only real way she can to get any control over her life that is possible.

But she also matures and gets advice from several older women about life and how to pick your battles. She sees instances where people act in ways Birdy might not initially understand or accept as what she would do but which are what those people think are best. She begins to understand that maybe she doesn’t know everything and that she might need to rethink her impressions of the people around her. Perhaps her older brother Robert isn’t quite the abomination she’s always thought he is. Birdy’s friend appears to believe it. Maybe the beast her father is a better husband than Birdy knew. Birdy’s mother certainly thinks so.

Is Birdy’s change of heart over her upcoming marriage growing up or giving in? Mainly I think growing up but that comes with a whiff of giving in. She’s still not enamoured of the man her father has chosen for her when she decides to face the music. But the advice that’s been given to her finally sinks in and begins to make sense to her. She can still be herself no matter where she is or goes and no matter what she becomes. No one can take that away from her and she has the power to make the best of whatever situation she finds herself in. B

~Jayne

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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

16 Comments

  1. Heidi Belleau
    Sep 03, 2012 @ 19:04:31

    Oh Jayne, once again you speak my language. This was one of my FAVOURITE books growing up and I can’t wait to read it to my daughter.

  2. SonomaLass
    Sep 03, 2012 @ 19:23:23

    I got to teach this book in Children’s Literature class, and it was always a favorite. It was a really interesting book for student teachers to plan lessons around. It sparks great discussion of gender roles, historical and contemporary.

  3. Carolyne
    Sep 03, 2012 @ 19:34:07

    I’m always happy to see a review of a book that means so much to me. I love the voice and the earthiness and the genuine feeling of Birdy’s story. But I much prefer the original hardcover cover art by Trina Schart Hyman over the paperback cover, which always struck me as strange looking.

  4. Liz Talley
    Sep 03, 2012 @ 21:06:30

    I loved this book so much that I put it on my reading list for World History when I taught it (along with The Midwife’s Apprentice). I didn’t care it was below reading level for most the girls in the academy – it was a great commentary on life in the Middle Ages and drew great parallels for modern 14 year old girls to contrast. I’d actually forgotten about this book, but I’ll be sure and recommend it to my friends who have girls. I have boys who sadly enough wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole. Sigh. I missed out on recommending so many of the books I loved as a child.

  5. Evangeline Holland
    Sep 03, 2012 @ 22:27:33

    I loved this book when I was a kid! Get your hands on a copy of Frances Temple’s The Ramsay Scallop next.

  6. Patricia Eimer
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 06:15:03

    I’d forgotten about this book. My Oldest is the perfect age for this one. I’ll have to pick it up for her.

  7. Jayne
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 07:53:27

    @Carolyne: It’s the cover of the copy I have so that’s why I chose it. I did laugh when I saw it and realized what Birdy was up to – though I doubt any young girl of that time would attempt to pull such a stunt on a suitor!

  8. Jayne
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 07:56:07

    @SonomaLass: I liked that even though Birdy’s attitude is more modern, her activities and interests were – I guess – historically correct.

  9. Jayne
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 07:58:34

    @Heidi Belleau: @Patricia Eimer: The way the book is broken up into smaller sections seems as if it would make it easier for younger readers to tackle. No seemingly endless chapters but rather bite size pieces.

  10. Jayne
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 08:12:25

    @Liz Talley: It’s too bad the boys wouldn’t read it. I loved the character of Birdy’s friend Perkin, the goat herder. There was a boy born 700 years too early to achieve all he could with his intelligence.

  11. Jayne
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 08:13:21

    @Evangeline Holland: That does look interesting. I’ll keep my eye open for a copy.

  12. AmyW
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 11:09:55

    @Liz Talley I loved The Midwife’s Apprentice when I was young and still have my heavily creased paperback copy. I also read Catherine, Called Birdy but I didn’t like the diary style as much.

  13. Kari S.
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 00:40:34

    Have to say I agree with Carolyne about the cover. Trina Hyman was a superlative artist and her covers were always gorgeous. Try and find it and you’ll realize why we feel that way!

  14. Carolyne
    Sep 05, 2012 @ 11:45:59

    @Jayne: Wow…I actually never noticed what Birdy is up to on the paperback cover!

    @Evangeline Holland: Thanks for the reminder about The Ramsay Scallop. It keeps slipping off my TBR radar. If only there were a digital edition…

    @everyone: Yes, The Midwife’s Apprentice! Small and stunning (and with a superlative cover by Trina Schart Hyman on the original hardcover). If I’m being objective, I’d say that it’s very much the better and more tightly crafted of the two books, but Birdy was my first love :)

  15. chandler
    Feb 07, 2013 @ 19:02:29

    dear karen cushman……. i love catherine called birdy and wish that i could have a autograph book sign by you………. plaese email me back!!!!!!!!!! =]

  16. REVIEW: Mara – Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw
    Jul 26, 2013 @ 08:02:04

    [...] bought myself a copy of this book last year when I got “Catherine, Called Birdy.” I read “Birdy” but somehow “Mara” got set to the side and it drifted out of [...]

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