The Midwife's Apprentice

by Karen Cushman

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What is the setting of The Midwife's Apprentice?

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The Midwife's Apprentice is set in medieval England, most likely during the late thirteenth or early fourteenth centuries. The time period is not explicitly stated, but the author gives the reader clues as to the story's setting in time, mentioning the English king Edward Longshanks, and an old English song, "Summer Is a'Coming In," which was written during that period. Movement between geographical locations was very difficult during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, with ordinary citizens traveling from place to place mainly by walking, or, if they were lucky, on horseback. Because of this, the action in the story realistically takes place in one small village and its immediate environs, the distance which can be traversed comfortably in a short day's walk.

The setting is integral to the development of the narrative. The peasant people are closely tied to the land and the elements; their very survival depends on these things. The odious description of the dung heap on which Beetle sleeps because of its warmth at the beginning of the story is representative of the cyclical aspect of life, and the intimacy with which the characters are acquainted to the earth. The peasants depend on the land in growing their crops and raising their animals, and in the end, all things return from whence they came, to the earth. The vividly presented seasons also prescribe the movement of the peasants' lives, directing the ever repeating cycle of planting and harvesting, controlling everything, except for the all-powerful elements of birth and death.

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How does the setting help set the mood/tone of the The Midwife's Apprentice?

The Midwife's Apprentice is set in medieval England, and the realities of life in a small English village during that period of time contribute to the mood and tone of the story in many ways. Even in the first few sentences, a fact of life in medieval England sets the tone:

When animal droppings and garbage and spoiled straw are piled in a great heap, the rotting and moiling give forth heat. Usually no one gets close enough to notice because of the stench. But the girl noticed, and on that frosty night, burrowed deep into the warm, rotting muck, heedless of the smell.

Medieval England lacked many of the services we take for granted in modern times, such as regular garbage pickup and disposal. During medieval times, there also weren't laws against littering. Because of this, it wasn't unusual for the streets to be full of garbage and other nasty stuff.

But what does this have to do with the mood or tone of the story? Well, Karen Cushman, the author of The Midwife's Apprentice, takes advantage of this "feature" of medieval life to set up a fairly grim mood (this isn't a nice, pretty, perfume-filled place we're reading about).

At the same time, Cushman doesn't use a sad or shocked tone. Instead, she uses a very matter-of-fact, straightforward tone. This makes it clear that the garbage wasn't unusual at all—it was just a fact of life that people were used to. 

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What is the setting of The Midwife's Apprentice?

The Midwife's Apprentice, written by Karen Cushman, is set in England during the Medieval Period-- sometime during the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. The book offers a vivid description of village life, with its farms, cottages, and a manor house. Specific settings include the interior of homes, where Alyce helps to deliver babies, as well as a fair, an inn where Alyce lives and works, and even a dung heap! The author is very detailed in her descriptions, which makes this work of historical fiction feel all the more real. The story covers about two years of time, following Alyce from her stinking dung heap to her ending as Jane Sharp's apprentice.

For more details on The Midwife's Apprentice, please see our helpful study guides!

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What are two important settings in The Midwife's Apprentice?

Two important settings from the novel were the dung heap and Jane's cottage.  When the story began, Alyce was a homeless girl who found warmth in a dung heap.  This setting was a place where "garbage and spoiled straw [were] piled up in a great heap" in the village.  Even though the heap of trash smelled awful, Alyce burrowed herself inside because the night was cold.  Jane, the midwife, found Alyce in the dung heap the next morning.  Meeting Jane changed Alyce's life, because she found a home and became the midwife's apprentice.

Another important setting was Jane's cottage.  The cottage had a fireplace, a hard packed dirt floor, and dusty "shelves packed with jugs and flasks and leather bottles."  Alyce moved into Jane's cottage when she became the midwife's apprentice.  She slept on the dirt floor and did chores and ran errands for Jane.  This was the first real home that Alyce could remember having.

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