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.

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