The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman

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(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2,270 words.)