The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

The Midwife’s Apprentice

written by Karen Cushman,  published by Clarion Books in 1995

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Newbery Medal
ALA Best Book for Young Adults
ALA Notable Book for Children
Booklist Editors’ Choice
Horn Book Fanfare Selection
School Library Journal, Best Books of the Year
ALA Best Book for Young Adults
Hungry Mind Review Book of Distinction
Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts
Not Just For Children Anymore! Selection (CBC)
Parenting Magazine Reading Magic Awards
Pacific Northwest Library Association Young Readers Choice Award Short List
Parents’ Choice Gold Award
American Bookseller “Pick of the Lists”
New York Public Library, 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing
ABC Children’s Booksellers Choice Award
NYPL Books for the Teen Age List
Newbery Medal

Newbery Medal

This is an excellent middle grade book in the genre of historical fiction.  Katherine Cushman provides a detailed account of a poor young girl’s transformation from a vagrant, nameless child, to a woman with a name, who serves her community with valuable skills.

The protagonist appears in the first chapter in the most humble circumstances- she crawls out from a dung heap- she is unaware of her parentage, and does not even know her name or age… The author poignantly uses this characters journey through many adversities to highlight the essence of perseverance.

A quick overview of orphans who feature in literature

Sara Crewe- from A Little Princess

Sara Crewe- from A Little Princess

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Orphan Annie

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Harry Potter

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Jane Eyre

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Moses

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Huckleberry Finn

  • Sara Crewe- (from A Little Princess)
  • Little Orphan Annie
  • Harry Potter
  • Jane Eyre
  • Moses
  • Huckleberry Finn

When looking back on other similarly poor and orphaned main characters in classic novels-  the utter wretchedness of Alyce is unparalleled.

In any event, the dung heap probably smelled little worse than everything else in her life–the food scraps scavenged from kitchen yards, the stables and sties she slept in when she could, and her own unwashed, unnourished, unloved and unlovely body.

How old she was was hard to say.  She was small and pale, with the frightened air of an ill-used child, but her scrawny, underfed body did give off a hint of woman, so perhaps she was twelve or thirteen. No one knew for sure, least of all the girl herself, who knew no home and no mother and no name but Brat and never had.  Someone, she assumed, must have borne her and cared for her lest she toddle into the pond and changed her diapers when they reeked, but as long as she could remember,  Brat had lived on her own by what means she could-

As the story unfolds- so does the blossoming of the poor urchin girl- her name evolves from Brat, she becomes Beetle,  and finally she transforms to Alyce.   Small victories are achieved because of Alyce’s overcoming spirit and determination to succeed.  One of her first triumphs is when she goes to the medieval market and purchases an embellished comb for herself:

The comb was hers.  Beetle stood breathless for fear someone would snatch it back.  Never had she owned anything except for her raggedy clothes and occasional turnips, and now the comb with the cat was hers.

Jane Sharp, the local midwife who takes young Alyce in is harsh and money oriented.  She has a successful business but her clients are not satisfied.  Over time,  Alyce gains the reputation of being a competent midwife who is trustworthy and soothing.  Karen Cushman cleverly highlights the vast differences in these two female characters, as the book progresses the reader is breathlessly encouraging Alyce to triumph over the cruel Jane Sharp.

“Jane Sharp! It is I , Alyce, your apprentice.  I have come back. And if you do not let me in, I will try again and again.  I can do what you tell me and take what you give me, and I know how to try and risk and  fail and try again and not give up. I will not go away.”

Alyce- was forced into many difficult situations- and she was often frightened because she felt unprepared with how to cope with a crisis.

Alyce took another deep breath and returned to Joan’s side. She gave her mugwort in warm ale to drink and spoke soothingly, calling her Sweetheart and Gold Old Girl.  She warmed oil over the fire and rubbed her head and belly, as she had the cow’s.  she did not know the spells or the magic, so gave Joan all she had of care and courtesy and hard work

What Alyce lacks in training she makes up for in her courage and kindness.  Working as a midwife is extremely challenging.   Some of her experiences are not successful, and she has to cope with feeling inadequate.

But the next morning her young body, now used to a roof and warm food on cold mornings, pricked and pained her until she awoke.  It was still raining and she was still a homeless failure.  She stood up, picked some of the leaves from her hair, wiped her drippy nose on her sleeve, and looked around.  She knew where she was.  Behind her were the village,  Emma, the midwife, and failure–she could not go back there.  She could not stay here in the rain waiting to die, for she was too cold and hungry and uncomfortable and alive.

Alyce’s life  is not comfortable and the author conveys a compelling atmosphere of medieval life in Britain-  it is a rainy and bleak landscape, dirty and grimy with many people living in poverty with inadequate provision of food and shelter.

The turning point of the novel and Alyce’s life comes when she is able to discern what she really wants to achieve.  She says, “I know what I want.  A full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world.”    To achieve this- Alyce must work hard, she must learn to read, she must learn a trade, and she must gain confidence to support herself in a community.  As she matures Alyce, takes in a young boy, Edward and even helps him out- more evidence of her becoming a responsible adult.   Alyce’s journey to becoming independent is also documented through her emotions.  In her early life, she could only focus on survival, but as she gains more autonomy- Alyce is forced to cope with complex feelings which until this point she has been able to suppress.

So Alyce learned about the sometimes mighty distance between what one imagines and what is. She would not be bringing Edward back with her to make her heart content, but she knew she had not failed him, and she breathed a heavy sigh of sadness, disappointment, and relief.  It felt so good that she did it again and again until her sighs turned to sobs and she cried her first crying right there in the hen house …

For me, this was the highlight of the book- seeing Alyce overcome and be able to actually have time to FEEL,  was amazing.  It’s hard to imagine that a person who is old enough and responsible enough as Alyce  had never had a moment or the permission to cry… incredible, and humbling.

I absolutely loved this wonderful book and highly recommend it.  It would be suitable for readers aged 9 and above.

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