REVIEW: The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman
The girl known only as Brat has no family, no home, and no future until she meets Jane the Midwife and becomes her apprentice. As she helps the sharp-tempered Jane deliver babies, Brat—who renames herself Alyce—gains knowledge, confidence, and the courage to want something from life: “A full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world.” Medieval village life makes a lively backdrop for the funny, poignant story of how Alyce gets what she wants. A concluding note discusses midwifery past and present. A Newbery Medal book.
Dear Ms. Cushman,
Years ago I read “Catherine, Called Birdy” and enjoyed it so much I immediately bought a copy of this book based on the number of wonderful comments about it. Brat is very different from Birdy in material comforts but she is similar in ultimately choosing her own path in life.
Brat is about as lowly a person as possible in medieval England. She has no place and is “unwashed, unnourished, and unloved.” On a frosty, cold night she finds warmth in a rotting dung heap only to be rudely kicked awake in the morning by noisy boys. Then her life takes a turn when a woman agrees to let Brat work (hard) in exchange for a few scraps. Brat keeps working and doing whatever Jane the Midwife orders and yells at her to do and slowly begins to settle in to a life of drudgery. But at least she’s indoors and isn’t desperately hungry anymore.
Brat even befriends an orange cat who names itself “Purr” and saves it from those same rude village boys. Later she saves it again and puts the lifelong fear of God in those boys. Go, Brat.
After a trip to a local town fair, Brat gets her first compliment, which nestles in her heart, and her first possession: a carved, wooden comb with a cat on it. She’s also mistaken for someone called “Alyce” who apparently can read. Could someone think her intelligent enough looking to be someone who can read? Brat decides to start calling herself Alyce who “sounded clean and friendly and smart. You could love someone named Alyce.” Jane the Midwife “humphs” but Alyce has been slowly proving herself by learning about the herbs, concoctions and ways of midwifery.
When a moment of doubt assails her, what will Alyce do? And when faced with choices in life, what will she decide?
First off let me say that I totally agree with commenter Carolyne about how compact yet perfect the book is. It has that wonderful combination of showing so much but with effortless ease and succinct prose. While reading it, the pages flew by yet I saw and felt everything.
I loved Alyce. She goes from expecting nothing from life (because that’s basically all she’s ever had) to beginning to understand she has worth. She can also get some wonderful revenge on the people who bullied her. From a nameless nobody she becomes a person with some agency and in the end, choice in her life – which for a female then was a rare thing. Her life is by no means easy but she finally gains things she never dreamed of before – “a full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world.” Plus she has Purr. A-