The Midwife’s Apprentice

The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman
The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman is a wonderful coming-of-age book set in the fourteenth century in England.  We follow an orphan girl who can’t remember either of her parents or her name.   She doesn’t know how old she is either–12 or 13 maybe.  She’s known as Brat and Beetle–the names others call her.  She travels around villages, pilfering food.  She meets a midwife who takes her in because she needs help doing her duties.

Beetle learns quickly and is far from dumb.  She rescues a cat she names Purr.  She takes the name Alyce after being mistaken for another girl named Alyce.  She saves a boy, Will, when he falls into a pond.  He is one of those who taunts her.  He comes to like Alyce and defend her.

One day Alyce is called to help a woman give birth.  She is specifically requested after she helped another woman give birth.  Alyce arrives but fails to help the mother.  Jane, the midwife, steps in and successfully delivers the child.

Alyce, feeling a failure, runs away.  She believes herself too stupid to be a midwife’s apprentice. She finds a home in an inn and works there.  She befriends a magister who is staying at the inn collecting stories for an encyclopedia he is writing.  He teaches Alyce how to read.

One day the magister asks Alyce what does she want.  She never thought about what she wants.  She thinks and thinks and thinks and says, “I want a full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world.”

The midwife shows up to tell the magister herbs for midwifery.  She mentions Alyce and says, “Alyce gave up.  I need an apprentice who can do what I tell her, take what I give her, and who can try and risk and fail and try again and not give up.”

Alyce misses the village she left so she visits.  She checks in on Edward, an orphan boy she helped find a job.  He’s content and doing well.

Soon afterwards, a prosperous couple shows up at the inn.  The woman is pregnant and Alyce ends up successfully delivering the baby after watching the woman suffer labor pains.

The rich merchant couple offers to take Alyce as their nanny.  The innkeeper offers to pay Alyce to stay.   The magister offers to take Alyce with him to Oxford to care for his elderly sister.  However, Alyce returns to the midwife–where her heart is and her place is in the world.  Jane takes her in only after the cat refuses to leave.

Great, great story.  Short and fast.  We read it in about an hour and a half.  Newbery Medal Winner for 1996.  Great themes of not giving up.  Of having faith in yourself.  Of believing in yourself.  Of following your heart to where you belong.  Of finding your place in this world and discovering what you want.

Authentic to the Middle Ages.  True to the hardships of peasant life.  Great portrayal of orphans and its prolifery in the Medieval Ages.  All around a great read.  My kids and I loved it.  Author’s note at the end about the history of midwifery and its prevalence today.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

The Witch of Blackbird Pond
The Witch of Blackbird Pond

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare follows a sixteen year-old girl who leaves her native Barbados for the colony of Connecticut in 1687.  Her parents and grandfather have all died and she only has one aunt on her mother’s side.  She arrives unannounced and it is apparent from the beginning she does not fit in in this Puritan town.  She can swim for one thing and she is unused to hard labor and small towns having an aristocratic background.

She is immediately courted by the most eligible bachelor (and the richest) in town, William Ashby.  She helps her cousin, Mercy, with the school and teaches a girl named Prudence how to read when her mother refuses to send her to school.  She meets an elderly woman named Hannah who has been accused of witchcraft mainly because she lives alone and is a Quaker.

Kit is drawn to Hannah and they develop a secret friendship.  Hannah offers worldly wisdom, telling her “The answer is in thy heart.  Thee can always hear it if thee listens for it.”

Hannah’s magic cure for everything:  Blueberry cake and a kitten.

Prudence asks why people say she’s a witch.  Kit says cause people are afraid of things they don’t understand.

Hannah says there is no escape if love is not there.

Kit is attracted to Nat Eaton, a ship captain’s son, who helps Hannah as well.

A sickness develops and the Puritan colony blames Hannah the witch for cursing them.  They try to run her out of town but Kit along with Nat’s help warns her in time.  With Hannah gone to live in a neighboring town, the townspeople turn on Kit, claiming she is a witch as well.  No evidence exists and with Prudence’s help who proves she can read and write and has not been infected by witchcraft, Kit is set free.  Kit ends her courtship with William who did not come to her defense at her trial and plans to return to Barbados when winter ends.

She sees Nat in early spring who now has his own ketch, and he immediately asks her uncle for her hand in marriage.

A wonderful book with happy endings for all involved.  All the love stories end up fulfilled and justice does prevail along with stereotypes being broken down.  Great story of standing up for others when it’s the right thing to do even when your life is threatened.  Great historical depiction of life in the early American colonies and Puritan life.  Winner of the Newbery Medal in 1959.  A classic of literature not to be missed.