Thursday, September 23, 2010

Module 4: The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

The Midwife’s Apprentice details the story of Alyce (also called Beetle), a medieval teen aged orphan who finds herself in the service of the village midwife Jane Sharp. Jane loads Alyce with chores in exchange for food scraps and a place to sleep on her floor. Alyce, who is supposed to be learning midwifery from Jane, sees a great deal of the auxiliary work involved in the trade, but no actual births. Eventually, Jane must tend to two births at once, which give Alyce a chance to prove her worth. After a successful delivery, Alyce is excited and confident in her skills as a midwife, but is crushed when she fails to successfully deliver her second baby. Alyce runs away from the village and works, for a time, as an inn keeper’s assistant. After delivering a baby at the inn, Alyce realizes that she is meant to be a midwife. Though she doesn’t know everything about delivering babies, Alyce knows that she knows more than most. She returns to Jane Sharp’s home and demands back her place as the midwife’s apprentice.

The Midwife’s Apprentice was an easy read that simultaneously delivered a huge amount of entertainment as well as historical information. Alyce is a well developed character who is right on the brink of womanhood. Cushman gives Alyce a complex range of emotions that come across as true and honest to the reader. I was most struck by Alyce’s reaction to failure and the way Cushman narrated her emerging from failure to a place of triumph and determination in the end. Having researched women’s health in medieval and renaissance times, I am struck with the amount of detail Cushman uses to describe the methods of midwives in that time period. At the same time, the medical details of the trade never come across as boring to the reader. I think this book is an amazing resource for history classes in addition to being a great read.

Review: Horn Book Magazine
In a sharply realistic novel of medieval England by the author of Catherine, Called Birdy (Clarion), a homeless, hungry orphan girl called Beetle is discovered trying to keep warm in a pile of dung by the village midwife. The midwife, Jane Sharp, takes Beetle in to work as a servant for little food, barely adequate shelter, and cutting words. To Beetle, however, it is a step upward. The midwife is far from compassionate, but she is, for her times, a good midwife. Beetle becomes interested in the work and watches Jane covertly as she goes about her business. Beetle also adopts a scraggly cat that she has saved from the village boys' cruel mistreatment, and she feeds it from her own inadequate meals. As Beetle grows and learns, she begins to gain some hard-won self-esteem, and renames herself Alyce. She becomes more accepted by the villagers and is sometimes asked for advice. On one occasion she employs her common sense and compassion to successfully manage a difficult delivery when Jane Sharp is called away. Jane is far from pleased; she wants no rivals and is angered when a woman in labor asks specifically for Alyce. But Alyce finds she knows less than she thought, and Jane must be called in to save the mother. Alyce, in despair and humiliation, takes her cat and runs away. She spends some time working at an inn, where she learns a good deal more about herself and the world. At last she admits to herself that what she wants most is to become a midwife, and she returns to Jane. The brisk and satisfying conclusion conveys the hope that the self-reliant and finally self-respecting Alyce will find her place in life. The graphic and convincing portrayals of medieval life and especially the villagers given to superstition, casual cruelty, and duplicity — afford a fascinating view of a far distant time.

Suggested Activities
In a school setting, I would visit history classes and read excerpts from The Midwife’s Apprentice aloud to promote the book. Chapters in this book are short and easy to follow which would allow the book to “speak for itself” while not taking up too much class time.

Cushman, K. (1995) The Midwife’s Apprentice. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN: 0395699296.
Flowers, A. (1995, August). [Review of the book The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman] Horn Book Magazine, 71(4), 465-466.

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