The Midwife's Apprentice takes place in the last years of the thirteenth or the first years of the fourteenth century. This is not stated explicitly but is easily established by internal evidence. References are made to "Summer Is Acoming In," a Middle English lyric written down in manuscript after 1240 and before 1310, and Edward Longshanks, the first of eight English Kings to bear that name, who reigned from 1272 to 1307.
From the first sentences the world of medieval England bursts to life not just as a physical landscape against which people struggle to survive but almost as a character in its own right: "When animal droppings and garbage and spoiled straw are piled up in a great heap, the rotting and moiling give forth heat. Usually no one gets close enough to notice because of the stench." The pungent description of the dung heap in the nameless village where much of the story occurs immediately establishes—to our modern sensibilities and frames of reference—the incredible intimacy that people lived during this period with all that came from and disappeared into the land.
To a degree almost unimaginable to us today all but the richest lived in the closest daily contact with the earth. They of necessity embraced it and were embraced by it. They cleared forests, wrestled rocks from stony slopes, broke the root-gnarled ground, sowed seed, fought off marauding birds and foraging animals, and finally harvested what was left. The...
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The Midwife's Apprentice is a fine book for young adults produced by many small artful strokes. There are no flourished displays of literary devices and techniques here, only the traditional storyteller's voice well-modulated and perfectly pitched for its intended audience. Cushman's supple prose is excellent for brief descriptions of states of mind, individual people, and the natural world. An example of each will illustrate her descriptive dexterity. On Brat's pitiful longings when she is a homeless wretch at the beginning of the book: " . . . but dearly would she have loved to eat a turnip without the mud of the field still on it or sleep in a barn fragrant with new hay and not the rank smell of pigs who fart when they eat too much." On Magister Reese: "He was as long and skinny as a heron, with black eyes in a face that looked sad, kindly, hungry, and cold. On apples gathered from the ground: ". . . unable to say whether she liked the crisp white-fleshed Cackagees, the small, sour Foxwhelps, or the mellow, sweet Rusticoats and Rubystripes, she tried a few more." As the last quotation shows, Cushman is not afraid to use archaic words and names to help establish the atmosphere, texture, and taste of England in the Middle Ages, yet she does not go overboard and use obsolete words just because she has fallen in love with them. She is always mindful of how much her readers may and may not know, and she does not abuse their attention spans with undigested...
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Cushman treats an often perilous and brutal historical period with delicacy, touching on enough of the harshness of the age to bring it to vivid life but muting its cruelest aspects. It is always painful to contemplate filth, poverty, desperate lives of grinding labor, and the truly helpless—orphans, the homeless, and animals—but Cushman presents only what must be shown to be realistic, with all the rendered details put into the service of a moral story. This tale is also presented with adroit finesse. Thus the Midwife's Apprentice has very few social sensitivities that might cause offense; it could be produced as G rated movie without alteration. The few themes or situations that might be potentially objectionable are handled with calming discretion.
There is an illicit romance between the midwife and the married baker with thirteen children, but the details only go so far as secret meetings with "furious hugging and kissing" and the giving of large quantities of fresh bread by the baker to Jane. Another theme that has the potential to bother people is taking a measure of rough justice into one's own hands. Brat/Beetle/Alyce does this when she plays a series of vengeful pranks on members of the village who have abused and humiliated her in the past. She carves two blocks of wood into the hoove-shapes of an unknown animal and then uses them to make mysterious tracks to the houses of those who have harmed her. The superstitious villagers think...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Does Alyce have a moral right to take revenge on those who have humiliated her? If so, to what degree? Is it ever right to take personal vengeance in the modern world? If so, in what circumstances and under what conditions?
2. Should Alyce protest the sharp practices, if not outright cheating, of the innkeeper's wife? Should Alyce try to deal honestly with the customers despite the example set by Jennet? Is Jennet's justification of her adulterated trade a good one? Would we today except this explanation for goods or services purchased that were intentionally shorted by the seller?
3. Does the midwife have any moral obligation to help those mothers-to-be who cannot pay her fees? How does her attitude compare to the attitudes of today's health practioners and caregivers? How do modern insurance practices affect the attitudes of doctors and nurses?
4. What are the strengths of modern midwifery? In what areas may it have advantages over traditional obstetrics?
5. Can you judge people by the way they treat animals? Is it possible to treat animals badly and still be a decent person?
6. What determines self-esteem in young people? Rank the factors, qualities, beliefs, and circumstances in the order you feel are most important and defend your choices. This could be done in small groups, with two groups pairing off at a time to debate their conclusions.
7. Would you, faced with Alyce's options at the...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Research herbal medicines used in the Middle Ages and then write a study of which ones are still in use and for what purposes. Are some still used but for different illnesses? How accurate were medieval herbalists in the efficacy of their preparations?
2. Research animal husbandry in rural life. Pick several cultures in different time periods and compare their respective animal husbandry practices.
3. Rebecs, gitterns, and sackbuts are mentioned in the story. Research these and other medieval musical instruments. How were they built? Out of what materials? Which ones have modern descendants? Which ones have disappeared? Describe how a group of medieval instruments might have sounded and the effects this sound might have had on audiences.
4. Research medieval Saint's Days. Which ones were the most important and why? Which ones are still important?
5. Study the control seasons had over the lives of agricultural workers and city-dwellers as depicted in medieval art. Pick two or three examples of this genre of art and discuss the differences and similarities between the kinds and nature of the activities shown. Bring in pointed references to the culture of the time when discussing the reasons for the differences you have observed.
6. Study the conflicts between medieval England and the neighboring countries. How did the conflicts affect the common people? How were the conditions in Scotland and Wales during a...
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Catherine, Called Birdy shares a host of attributes with The Midwife's Apprentice, so many that the second novel stands almost in the same relation to the first as do the two halves of a diptych: together they make up an entire world. Catherine, Called Birdy is the first-person diary account of a highborn thirteen-year-old girl of diminished means struggling to impose her will on the world around her of England in 1290-1291. The Midwife's Apprentice is the third-person story of a lowborn and impoverished thirteen-year-old girl who is trying to survive in the England of about 1300. The two novels touch on the high, the low, and almost all that lies between in this portion of the Middle Ages.
Catherine, headstrong and willful, starts keeping a journal at the behest of her brother Edward, who hopes this penitential discipline will make her grow less childish and more learned. Her mother is trying to force Catherine's rebellious spirit, questioning nature, and independent spirit into the mold of a fine lady—"dumb, docile, and accomplished"—so she can make an advantageous marriage to repair the family's fallen fortunes. Her diary tells the story of what happens to her over the next year in the manor house in Lincolnshire. Nothing is missed: fairs, feasts, fields planted and harvested, difficult births and even more difficult deaths, drunken weddings, and a procession of "clodpole suitors" for her hand. Against this compelling...
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For Further Reference
Cooper, Ilene. Review. Booklist (April 15, 1994). Cooper says of Catherine, Called Birdy, "The diary style also inhibits the ability of the characters to come alive. Birdy's is the only real voice. Fortunately, it's a sprightly voice, complete with its own brand of cursing ("God's thumbs!"), that moves the action. Kids can read this on their own or as a supplement to studies of the Middle Ages."
Cushman, Karen. In Contemporary Authors, Vol. 155. Detroit: Gale, 1996: pp. 143-147. Interview with Cushman that provides an in-depth view of her life and writing.
Horn Book (July-August, 1994): 457- 458. Review of Catherine, Called Birdy. Catherine, the daughter of an impoverished...
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