Ages 10 and up
By Karen Cushman
I love historical fiction because of Karen Cushman. She is a master at drawing readers completely into another time period. Weaving detailed descriptions of the foods, the sounds, the smells, the scenery and the habits of people who lived a much more difficult life, with strong, sympathetic characters readers can connect with. Some authors are good writers, others are good storytellers, Cushman is both. In addition to winning the Newbery Award for this book, she was previously awarded a Newbery Honor for Catherine Called Birdy (Clarion Books, 1994).
This story takes place in England during the 14th century. Brat, the main character, is a young orphaned girl who is maybe 12 or 13. When we first meet her, she’s sleeping in a dung heap, the only warm place she can find. That’s where the midwife finds her. It is also the reason some of the locals take to calling her Dung Beetle, or Beetle for short.
Brat usually moves through towns quickly. However, she convinces the midwife, Jane, that she will work hard and be useful. She becomes Jane’s apprentice and, for the first time in her life, has a reason to settle in. Jane “does her job with energy and some skill, but without care, compassion or joy.” She believes Brat to be stupid, and Brat is scared and timid, making her the perfect apprentice for Jane to exploit and abuse.
When Brat is sent to the county fair to purchase items for the midwife, she’s mistaken for a young woman named Alyce. Brat suddenly realizes that she needn’t be called any of the unkind names thrust upon her by callous people, and changes her name to Alyce on the spot. This transformation marks the beginning of her growth as a person.
Not too much time passes before Brat realizes the midwife intentionally resists actually teaching her the trade and also prevents her from being present at the births. Jane is cruel, especially to Brat. Brat, fearing a return to the streets and an empty stomach, keeps her head down, works harder and vows to talk less. Her only friend and confidant in the village is a cat she rescued from drowning at the hands of some local boys.
It was extremely rare for two births to occur at the same time, but the night it happens Alyce is left in charge of a birthing mother. Jane tends to the wealthier client, who will “pay in silver instead of chickens and beans.” Alyce delivers a healthy baby girl to the bailiff’s wife, and thus finds the courage to sneak into the homes of mothers in labor to learn the skills and secrets of midwifery.
One morning a village boy comes calling for Alyce to help with his mother’s labor. Jane is furious, and Alyce is perplexed, but she follows the boy, while Jane throws pots, insults and curses behind her. The labor is difficult and Alyce is inexperienced. It becomes apparent that she must call for the midwife. Jane delivers a healthy baby girl and Alyce feels ashamed and defeated. She runs away, taking the cat with her.
She soon finds herself at an Inn, and offers to work in exchange for food and shelter. Magister Richard Reese, a guest at the Inn, is kind and gentle, and takes a fatherly interest in Alyce. He’s also educated and Alyce spends extra time cleaning near him in an effort to spy on his writing, though she cannot read herself. Knowing Alyce is paying close attention, but also knowing she is too shy to speak with him, Magister Reese takes to speaking to the cat instead. He even begins teaching the cat to read.
One day Magister Reese directly addresses Alyce and asks what she wants from life. It takes her all day to respond.
“I know what I want. A full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world.”
The Magister is surprised, thinking she’d ask for something simple, such as a sweetheart or a ribbon for her hair. Alyce continues.
“This is what I want, but it is my misfortune to be hungry, out of humor and too stupid to be a midwife’s apprentice.”
“None so stupid,” he responds. “You can read as well as the cat.”
One night, as Alyce is prepping the Inn for a thunderstorm, a party of riders comes in need of help. One of the riders believes his wife is being devoured by a stomach worm and is seeking a “priest, a magician or a man of medicine.” In fact, the woman is in labor, and Alyce, fighting her own reluctance to help, delivers a healthy baby boy to a very tired and extremely grateful woman.
This event results in offers of work from the grateful couple, as well Magister Reese. The innkeepers offer her a promotion. Alyce, suddenly seeing a world of options before her, realizes exactly who she wants to be.
She returns to the midwife, smarter, stronger, and more determined. She convinces Jane to take her back as an apprentice. And Alyce finds her place in the world.