As you might have noticed, books written in the fantasy genre are my favorites, however, as I continue to choose books that I have loved and think are important for review, I am surprised by the number of works of historical fiction that are popping up. Among them, The Midwife's Apprentice is one of my favorites. Karen Cushman is remarkably skilled at evoking the colorful, dirty, smelly aspects of life in a medieval village and equally adept at creating strong female characters who face adversity and, through true trial and error, grow to meet their challenges.
The main character of The Midwife's Apprentice is a nameless, ageless and homeless girl, found sleeping in a dung pile for warmth when the story begins. Apprenticed by Jane Sharp, the self-interested, greedy village midwife, who renames her Beetle, after a dung beetle, she learns that midwifery is as much about hard work as it is tonics and spells. Used to being an outsider, Beetle watches the movements of those around her and is caught spying on the midwife's secret tryst with the married baker, which clues her in to the source of all the bread the midwife had been bringing home, but also lets her in for curses and punishment. When the midwife injures her leg, Beetle is sent to the St. Swithin's Day Fair to buy supplies. There, a merchant gives her a wooden comb to make her curls (curls she never knew she had) shine, the first thing she ever owned. Later that day, she acquires a proper name as well when she is mistaken for a girl named Alyce and decides that she is a person with individual qualities who should have the name of a person, not a bug.
Although it is a short book, much happens over the course of the story. Alyce makes a friend, helps a cow birth twin calves and helps the bailiff's wife with a breech birth when the midwife abandons her to help the lady of the manor, who pays in silver, through her labor. Alyce watches and learns from the midwife but also learns methods, such as yelling and slapping, that she does not want to adopt. When the bailiff's sister asks specifically for Alyce to deliver her child, Alyce she faces a challenge that she cannot meet and runs away in shame and sadness. She finds a job at a nearby inn and is taught to read and write by the local Magister. One day, Alyce overhears the midwife, who is visiting the inn, say that she didn't need an apprentice who gives up, she needs one who can try and risk and fail and try again and not give up. Babies don't stop being born and a midwife can quit trying to help them into this world. A well written turn of events leads Alyce back to the midwife's door, only to be turned away. But, remembering the words of the midwife, Alyce knocks on the door again and vows to do so until she is let in.
I am still amazed by how much content Cushman packs into this short novel. The character development of the nameless girl who becomes Alyce is amazing and, in the subtle way that I admire most, a wonderful example life's lessons is learned through her experiences. The affair between the baker and Jane Sharp takes up a few lines in the beginning of the book, and while it might concern some parents, I think it is written in a way that will go over most reader's heads. The scenes that involve childbirth are not graphic either, although Cushman does not hesitate to describe the moans and howls that (naturally) laboring women make. Understandably, this book isn't for every reader. However, it is so uniquely special and Alyce is such a strong, persevering character that she should not be missed.
If your child likes this, suggest Matilda Bone, by Karen Cushman, Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi. For older readers (12 and up) I suggest Sea of Trolls and the sequel, The Land of Silver Apples, by Nancy Farmer and, all by Cynthia Voigt, Elske, another all-time historical fiction favorite of mine, Jackaroo, and On Fortune's Wheel.