The Midwife's Apprentice

by Karen Cushman

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Setting

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537

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.

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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.

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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 land gave fallen fruit and nuts, wild herbs, and firewood. Cows and sheep gleaned from it what they could, rich or lean, as did pigs and hens. What their masters from birth to death valued and despised, dwelled in, wore, drank, played with, and used as medicines came from the land upon which they had such uncertain tenure.

The four seasons, as important as the land to the people of the 1300s, also have the palpable heft of breathing characters in The Midwife's Apprentice. The story covers the almost two years from winter to the summer after the following winter, and this span reveals how the inexorable round of the seasons governs every human activity. The frigid tyranny of winter gives way to the trembling green rebirth of the world in spring, and this moist renewal blooms into the golden glory of high summer which is clouded over and blown out by the burly winds of autumn. Planting, harvesting, soapmaking, sheepshearing, and ciderbrewing take place as the changing seasons allow. Religious celebrations, festivals, and ritual observations punctuate the cyclical rhythm of the year. One event alone does not follow the dictates of the seasons; only birth occurs when it will at any time, and thus places of birth—from plush manorial bedchambers to mounded straw in the fields—are central to a story of midwives, mothers-to-be, and infants struggling to be born.

Except for sailors, fisherman, and marine merchants, the personal landscape of the Middle Ages extended only as far as feet and hooves could take people. The Midwife's Tale therefore revolves around one country village and what lies within a short day's walk from it: peasant cottages, the Manor House, the Abbey, the Saint Swithin's Day Fair at Gobnet-Under- Green, and the inn at the crossroads.

Literary Qualities

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

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 gobbets of historical information. Cushman also avoids the sore thumb of anachronism, that chief bane of the historical novelist. Even the presented natures of Brat/Beetle/ Alyce and Jane the Midwife are psychologically sound for the period they live in. Cushman does not spoil her spell by carelessly allowing modern sensibilities to trespass on the thoughts and actions of her characters.

The Midwife's Apprentice is buoyant with humor of all kinds. The casual brutality of children's humor is illustrated by Brat being christened Beetle by the taunting boys because she, like a dung beetle, burrowed into a pile of dung and waste. Humor of incongruity is shown in the chapter where Beetle pulls the cat from the pond it was thrown into. A young girl with a happy upbringing would address tender epithets and prayers to the apparently drowned cat, but the best known-only-poverty Beetle can do is curse for life: '"Damn you, cat, breathe and live, you flea-bitten sod, or I'll kill you myself.'" Purr the cat is both a companion to Alyce and a vehicle for sly physical humor. When Magister Reese begins to "teach" the cat the alphabet—really directed to the uncommunicative Alyce—Purr responds in the timeless and quietly comical feline way. "The cat listened carefully, although sometimes he lost patience with the tutoring and began to bite at the tantalizingly moving pen." Many other examples could be cited, but the ones given demonstrate the range of Cushman's humor. An example of another type of humor, the chapter in which "the Devil" comes to the village, is discussed in a different context in the "Social Sensitivity" section.

Social Sensitivity

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571

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 that the Devil is on the loose, and those to whom the tracks lead are exposed to public ridicule, abuse, and censure because they are caught in compromising positions like stealing grain, unmarried cuddling in the haymow, falling asleep when thought working, and gluttony. The chapter detailing these events is witty, malicious, and droll. It is also undeniably cruel, but this cruelty is mitigated by the fact that the consequences to the offenders, though embarrassing, do not involve permanent harm and are far from the worst that could be meted out. Cushman takes great care in pointing out the maximum penalty for these transgressions, such as having hands lopped off and being branded on the face. What they suffer is mild in comparison.

The men and boys in the story are certainly not shown in an idealized light; some might think they are portrayed too darkly. The boys, especially, are often cruel to Alyce, animals, strangers, and each other. They are frequently lazy, sometimes sneaky, and almost always insensitive. Several factors rebut any charge of excessive hardness on men. The brutal boys shown are from the most beaten down element of the village. They are always "the scrawniest or the ugliest or the dirtiest or the stupidest boys, picked on by everyone else, with no one left uglier or stupider than they. . . ." At least one of their number is shown to have the capability of rising above his gross disadvantages; Will Russet goes from bully to friend after Alyce saves him from drowning. Women, too, are shown warts and all. False pride, avarice, petty-mindedness, jealousy, envy, and the will to cheat are all characteristics possessed by some of the women in the novel. The jolly and kind cook at the Manor is a notable exception. It is clear that Cushman is quite evenhanded overall in her treatment of the sexes, especially when her characters are considered in the misery-laden context of their times.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 251

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 knight, is in her fourteenth year when she begins a record of her daily life. Her diary of the year 1290 provides a revealing, amusing, and vivid picture of both Catherine's thoughts and medieval life. Her rebellious nature, questioning mind, and kindness to all creatures make her a sympathetic figure in this fascinating and thought provoking book.

Kirkus Reviews (March 15, 1994). Review of Catherine, Called Birdy. "The period has rarely been presented for young people with such authenticity; the exotic details will intrigue readers while they relate more closely to Birdy's yen for independence and her sensibilities toward the downtrodden. Her tenacity and ebullient naivete are extraordinary; at once comic and thought-provoking, this first novel is a delight."

Rochman, Hazel. Booklist (March 15, 1995). Review of The Midwife's Apprentice. Rochman says that "Kids will like this short, fast-paced narrative about a hero who discovers that she's not ugly or stupid or alone."

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