A girl of twelve or thirteen years begins The Midwife's Apprentice without mother, name, or home. She is a stranger to soft words who has known only curses, kicks, and blows. One would need to read widely to find a heroine on the verge of womanhood with a less promising future, yet by the end of the novel she has moved far beyond the desperate struggle just to survive and become a person who knows ". . how to try and risk and fail and try again and not give up." She has put herself in position to learn everything about being a midwife—physical techniques, herbs, potions, superstitions, spells and charms—and, even more importantly, has unlocked her capacity for compassionate intelligence which will add the grace of tenderness to her future ministrations.
It was as cold and dark inside her as out in the frosty night. . . .She knew only that hunger and cold cursed her life and kept her waking and walking and working for no other reason than to stop the pain.
This is the dire poverty of circumstance facing the girl known in the beginning only as Brat. She digs herself into a village dung heap to keep warm on a gelid night and is woken in the morning by hunger pangs and the most downtrodden of the local boys who torment her with cries of '"Dung beetle! Dung beetle! Smelly old dung beetle sleeping in the dung.'" A woman comes by, scatters the taunting boys, awards Brat the new name Beetle, and meagerly feeds the starving girl in exchange for work.
This woman—"neither young nor old, neither fat nor thin with a sharp nose and sharp glance and a wimple starched into sharp pleats"—is Jane the Midwife. Jane is competent at her profession, unlike many of her peers, but she has only strong hands, clean fingernails, and the bitter memories of giving birth to six children who later died as qualifications for being a midwife. She now lacks compassion for the physical agony and mental distress of women in labor and feels little joyfulness at bringing new life into the world. This harsh woman, the only midwife in the village, is also greedy for money and goods exchanged for her services, as well as being jealous of her position in the community. She constantly haggles over her fees and twice refuses to attend laboring mothers who are unable to pay. She treats Beetle like a lackwit drudge, giving her heavy work, scant food, no encouragement, and much dispiriting abuse.
Beetle soon finds herself doing much of the tedious "collecting and stewing and brewing" that are necessary to prepare the midwife's potions and ointments. The villagers begin to call Beetle the midwife's apprentice, though this does not stop them from taking out their frustrations at Jane's greed on her helpless helper. Beetle has one companion to confide in, a loyal listener who cannot give advice. This comforting companion is an abused cat the girl rescued from a pond where it was thrown by cruel village boys in a sack with an eel; upon recovering, the cat bonded with Beetle. Whenever she is faced with an especially trying situation, Beetle seeks solace from the affectionate Purr.
By this early point in the novel, Cushman has established the essential traits of her two chief characters, and it is apparent that there are critical differences between them. Jane the Midwife is too hardened by past rigors and crippled by a cheerless heart to grow as an individual. Beetle, though stunted by an unloved and rootless life, has youthful energy, a resilient spirit, a latent capacity to learn, and buried reserves of compassion for living creatures—as proven by her first friend the cat. She has for the first time a ground of precarious stability on which she can fight to become the person it is in her nature to be. Beetle's struggling growth towards realized potential now begins as she meets new people and faces various testing situations. These encounters—even those that result in feelings of hurt, failure, and futility—each contribute a little bit to her personal growth.
Even though Jane for a long time excludes Beetle from being present at actual deliveries, the girl can't help but witness her first birth when the weaver's daughter goes into labor in a field and has her baby there on clean straw. Beetle learns from this that being a midwife is "as much about hard work and good sense and comfrey tonic as spells...
(The entire section is 1786 words.)