The Midwife's Apprentice

by Karen Cushman

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What do the names Brat, Beetle, and midwife's apprentice reveal about the girl in The Midwife's Apprentice Chapter 1?

Quick answer:

The names Brat, Beetle, and midwife's apprentice signify that this girl is considered disposable and obnoxious even though she is useful and able to perform meaningful work.

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The first name applied to the girl in Karen Cushman’s novel is Brat. This is not the girl’s actual name; the girl’s true name is a mystery, so she goes by Brat. The name reflects the girl’s lowly position in society. Typically, a brat is not a good thing. If one is called a brat, it usually means they’re unpleasant and obnoxious. In the first chapter, Brat’s character isn’t presented as nasty or irritating, but her surroundings are. She sleeps in stables and on dung heaps. Sometimes, to feed herself, she has to steal. Like a brat, Brat is ostracized and an outcast.

Soon, Brat’s name changes. She goes from Brat to Beetle. This new name appears linked to a group of taunting boys. “Dung beetle! Dung beetle! Smelly old dung beetle sleeping in the dung,” they shout at her. While Beetle might not seem like a step up from Brat, perhaps there’s a way to argue that this new name is a kind of promotion. The word beetle can mean to move quickly or hurriedly. If one moves fast, they could be of use to others.

Sure enough, Brat/Beetle makes herself useful to the midwife. In exchange for work, the midwife gives Brat/Beetle bread, ale, and a place to sleep. Now that Brat/Beetle has proved her usefulness, she has a new name—the midwife’s apprentice. Unlike her first two names, this third name indicates that the girl is capable of playing a functional role in society.

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