Happy New Year! And welcome to another year of revisiting these classics and trash. This week is a classic to start the year off in the best way.
This is aimed at a little bit younger than the books I usually review, but I can’t possibly ignore it. It’s such a classic of the genre! It was a staple in every school library, on every classroom bookshelf, at every book fair, etc. etc., and so on. I haven’t probably touched this book in seventeen years or so, but it’s amazing the things that I remembered.
The Midwife’s Apprentice, Karen Cushman, 1991.
In case you don’t remember the basic premise of this book, it’s about a homeless girl in the Middle Ages, who literally lives in a dung heap. She has no family and no friends and no one to look after her, and she cuddles down in the dung heap to keep warm. This is also the first place I learned that rotting hay and stuff got warm and could conceivably be a place to stay if necessary, which featured in many of my childhood imaginings about what would happen if I got transported back to the Middle Ages. (I was a weird kid, don’t judge me.) She has no name, so everyone calls her Brat, except for the mean village boys, who call her Beetle. So already we’re working with a super cheery premise for a kids’ book.
A village woman, who is neither old nor young nor beautiful nor ugly but only “sharp,” finds Brat and gives her a little work to do in exchange for a place to sleep for the night, which she gratefully accepts, and Beetle finds herself installed as a sort-of servant in the home of the midwife, Jane. Brat rescues a cat from drowning, which becomes her companion, and she helps the midwife with her work of gathering the various herbs and things she needs. At first she isn’t allowed in, but she works up the courage to watch through the window and figures out that midwifery is about a lot of common sense and hard work rather than spells and magic.
This is a story about a girl, but it’s also a story about life in a medieval village and all the people who live there, and all the interconnections. To that end, Brat discovers that Jane and the baker are having an affair—and when they berate her for discovering her and leave her alone at Jane’s house, the miller comes by saying his wife is in labour and insists on Brat coming to help her. She says she couldn’t possibly, but he insists, and she (predictably) fails and has to be rescued by Jane.
She goes to the midsummer fair for Jane when Jane twists her ankle and is unable to, and while she’s there someone mistakes her for a girl named Alyce. So she names herself Alyce, and she names her cat Purr, and it seems that things are generally looking up for her when the Devil comes to stalk around their town. Alyce, because she isn’t afraid of being out at night, is the one who’s often sent to fetch and deliver things at night, and sees all the things that are going on. But when mysterious hoofprints start appearing around the village, leading people to things that should be left unseen (the miller stealing grain, a teenage couple getting it on in a barn, Jane and the baker carrying on their illicit affair). I didn’t realize for several years that Alyce was the one putting down all the mysterious hoofprints, even though it’s laid out fairly explicitly in the text. I’m going to put the blame on that one for myself because I’m confident that more perceptive younger readers could pick that up without any trouble at all.
Alyce’s first job midwifing is for a cow, of all things, and comes by accident when she stumbles across Will, the cow’s owner, who doesn’t have any idea what to do with a cow in labour. Alyce manages to coax the cow into delivering her twins, and begins to think herself quite the midwife. So the bailiff’s wife needs the midwife, but Jane has two calls on the same night and tells Alyce to stay with the bailiff’s wife and do nothing at all. But Alyce can’t stand by and do nothing while the bailiff’s wife is begging for death, so she manages to help deliver her of a daughter, and the midwife is raging mad. But gradually Alyce begins to learn a little bit about the herbs and what they’re used for, and thinks of herself as a real apprentice.
She rescues a little boy from sleeping in the dung heap like she used to do, and sends him over to the manor for work. Alyce begins to think pretty highly of herself indeed, and another woman calls for her to deliver her baby—but she can’t do it. She has to give up and call for Jane, who delivers the baby, and Alyce is so humiliated and doesn’t know what to do that she takes the cat and leaves.
She winds up at an inn, where she is again chore girl for the innkeepers, who ask her to stay on for a bit as she’s so helpful. Alyce stays there over the winter, when a scholar comes to stay, and she learns to read a bit by listening to him teach “the cat” her letters. Reese, the scholar, teaches her a little bit about the world and the planets and the heavens, but he’s surprised to learn that what she wants most of all is “a place in the world”—not material goods like a ribbon or a mirror, but some sort of satisfaction in her life.
The midwife stops by on a visit, and Alyce is too afraid to show her face, but she overhears the midwife talking about her and saying that Alyce was not what she needed—not because she was dumb, but because she gave up.
In the spring a traveler and his wife come to the inn, and she begins complaining she has a “stomach worm,” to which Jennet the innkeeper’s wife tactfully points out that she’s about to become a mother. Jennet knows nothing of birthing children, and the scholar Reese is worse than useless, and Alyce is busy cowering upstairs when she realizes that she has to act. She safely delivers the traveler’s wife’s child, and realizes that she really does want to become a midwife.
So she returns to Jane, who initially refuses her, and thinks that Jane has already told her what to do—she asks again and again, and Jane lets her come back for good.
Rating: A, of course. This is such a classic of the genre I couldn’t give it anything else. It’s not really a story about midwifery, other than it being Alyce’s planned career—it’s really about succeeding and failing and learning how to try again. Karen Cushman is a great writer, and there’s a lot of lovely little details that add up to a really evocative, sweet story about resilience and how to try again. I loved this wholeheartedly, and it was great upon reread as well.