Friday, August 9, 2013

The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman

Did I mention it won the
Newbery Award for
Excellence in Children's
Literature in 1996?
Do you have a daughter?  If so, go get this book and shove it into her hands immediately.  We just finished reading it at bedtime and loved it. If you want your daughter to be:

  • Persistant
  • Confident
  • Self-determining
  • Wise
  • Literate
  • Compassionate
  • Kind to animals
  • Powerful within her sphere
Then this is THE book for her.

We start with a little orphan waif who nestles into a dung pile every night just to keep warm, thus earning her the moniker "Dung Beetle."  Eventually, she makes herself useful enough to the village's midwife to earn some bread and a warm, dry place to sleep.  From there, things just get better.

At one point, she decides she's had enough of being called "Beetle" and christens herself Alyce.  She starts caring for a little cat, giving him bits of her own scarce meals and decides he needs a name, too (Purr).  I love how there is power in naming. With that seemingly small act of self-determinism she has set the course for her life.

Alyce is self-taught.  She watches silently all the midwife does and she remembers.  But, she's open to other avenues of knowledge, too.  She watches her friend Will (the origination of their friendship is another good story) as he coos and soothes Tansy the cow as she gives birth, even repositioning the calves at one point.  She learns how just being a comfort to another can sometimes be enough.

She is cocky, but eventually learns from her mistakes.  After successfully helping a mother give birth, she gets the next call (instead of the midwife); but she soon discovers she is out of her league and the midwife must come to her aid.  Completely humiliated, she runs away and become an innkeeper's maid.  But even there, she makes smart decisions and works hard.

Eventually, she realizes that she has to go back. She is meant to be a midwife. She can't just give up. However, because of her hard work and aptitude, she has options.  Before returning to her apprentice job, she is offered a job as a child's nurse, as a caregiver for the magistrate's mother, or she could have even kept on as the innkeeper's help. I love the scene where she goes out to the meadow to contemplate her choices.

This book really drives home that you are never stuck in your circumstances (but not at all in a preachy way).  Interestingly, even though there are plenty of adults who "help" Alyce, they are never looking out for her best interest.  They take advantage of her and only treat her in a way that benefits them.  But, Alyce is never a victim.  What others think of her or require of her never defines how she thinks of herself nor does it inform her decisions. I think this is a great point.  Many children's books have strong adult role models (which is GREAT and I want my daughter to experience that in real life and in art).  However, if we're honest, that is not always a very realistic portrayal of what life is actually like.  I love that kids who are lucky enough to find this book can see that they can make their own way, regardless of whether they have a grown-up who is mature and responsible enough to guide them.

Can I just say again how much I loved the heck out of this book?

There was a lot that went over my six-year-old's head.  The medieval superstitions really baffled her.  And she and I definitely had a lot of discussion about anatomy and the mechanics of childbirth (not conception, thankfully--not quite ready for that talk yet).  But this is how we ended the book:

Daughter: Are midwives still real? Or are they just in the olden days?
Me: They're still real.
Daughter: Then I can be one when I grow up???
Me: Yep.
Daughter:  I AM GOING TO BE A MIDWIFE JUST LIKE ALYCE!!!  <bounces up and down on the couch and hugs book>

I am not kidding.  That kind of hallmark moment actually happened last night. Go. Read. This. Book.

<We bought this book from a "Friends of the Library" book sale.>


  1. Aw! That could not be a cuter dialogue following the end of this book. I must have read this a dozen times when I was in elementary school. Catherine Called Birdy as well!

  2. Ooh--we haven't read Catherine Called Birdy yet. I definitely want to go visit the rest of Cushman's oeuvre.

  3. Thank you for your generous, thoughtful review. I love to hear from people who really understand the book. And I'm glad your daughter wants to be like Alyce.

  4. OH MY GOODNESS! Thank you so much, Ms. Cushman, for commenting on my blog. (My heart is beating so fast right now!!!) Two weeks ago we were out shopping and found a copy of Catherine, Called Birdy. As soon as we're finished with White Fang, it's next. Thank you so so much for creating these amazing worlds with brave girls.