The Midwife’s Apprentice, 1996 Newbery Award winner, realistically depicts the Middle Ages (early fourteenth century) through the eyes of a preteen girl in a simple, narrative style with easy-to-read prose.
Alyce, aka Brat or Dung Beetle, is a street urchin in a small village. She survives as a beggar and a scavenger, eating from garbage heaps and sleeping in mounds of dung. The local midwife takes her in, not merely out of the goodness of her heart. While Alyce becomes known as the midwife’s apprentice, in reality the woman has only given her menial chores and gardening duties. She shows Alyce no affection and doesn’t teach the girl midwifery. Instead, Alyce gathers her small amount of courage, and in peril of being discovered, sneaks into cottages where the midwife has been called so she can observe what is done for mothers and babies. Eventually, Alyce displays skills that rival the midwife. But that is only the external story.
The internal growth going on in Alyce is what won Cushman the Newbery. In a cruel world, Alyce, who has received no encouragement to love others, exercises her God-given compassionate nature and finds her place in the world.
- Karen Cushman provides little known facts of the era, and I never tire of learning history.
- Not only does The Midwife’s Apprentice teach a slice of Western Civilization, Cushman also provides an author’s note sharing facts on the history of midwifery.
- For all that the style is not what today’s reader is used to, it’s short (my edition had 117 pages), and its simplicity makes it a quick read.
- With all the negatives in Alyce’s life, the author is able to portray simple joys through events the girl had never before experienced: the praise of a friend, the gaiety of a country fair, a bath in the river.
- The dialogue is a bit rough on the ears for twenty-first century preteens. The characters’ daily treatment of each other is enough to warrant family discussions!
- TMI. The nature of the midwife’s job may be more information than you wish your ten-year-old to absorb. Without being graphic in every detail, the author gives a no-holds-barred portrait of the hard work and messiness required in labor and delivery.
- With nothing sugar-coated as mentioned above, I’m not sure upper elementary school children are ready for this book, even though the protagonist starts out around twelve years old.
Pick a page, any page, and you will find several topics for discussion—from the harsh times of the Middle Ages to the puzzle of the midwife’s motivations in dealing with Alyce as she did. The woman has some redeeming qualities after all.
If you proactively guide your children in becoming aware of the darkness of humanity in the safety of your home, I recommend this novel wholeheartedly.
If you prefer to protect your children for a little while longer, then save it for another year, or five.