Cushman, Karen. The Midwife’s Apprentice (1995). 117 Pages. Clarion Books. $10.95
It may have only taken me an hour to read, but a lot gets packed into this slim book. There’s a lot about 14th-century life, a lot about classes, and a lot of old midwife “magic” crammed into a shade over 100 pages. Somehow, it works, without being too overwhelming.
The book opens with a young girl climbing into a dung-heap to sleep, because it will at the very least be warm. It is because of this decision that the local Midwife decides to give her a few odd jobs, in the hopes that she will be useful. The Midwife calls her Dung-Beetle (Beetle for short) and the name sticks. Too cowed from years of being homeless, Beetle does not protest.
The Midwife is mean. She’s harsh, demanding, and distrustful. She brings Beetle along to births as a packmule, rather than a true apprentice. She doesn’t hesitate to make a woman give birth alone if she can’t come up with money, or enough goods. But Beetle is not stupid, and manages to learn some things on her own.
Things truly begin to change when Beetle has to go to a local fair for the Midwife. It is here that she dubs herself “Alyce,” and begins to find a new identity. The journey from nameless girl at the beginning of the book to Alyce at the end is what makes this book significant.
It’s meant to be meaningful to children at the end of elementary though junior high, when they’re also struggling to find themselves. It’s a sort of “you are who you make yourself” thing, because Beetle/Alyce rises against all odds, with nobody expecting her to be anything, and manages to find an identity, and a life that suits. There are a couple scenes where characters are truly cruel, but I think that despite this, it is a good book for the intended age. Children can be amazing, but they can also be horrible to each other, so cruelty is not exactly a bad thing to deal with in this book.
I remember loving this book when I was in the target age group. Now, I just liked it. Averaging the scores, it gets a 4/5, because it isn’t bad by any means. There are some scenes I didn’t like, but that’s because I’m a softie. Alyce/Beetle deals with them, and preteens often deal with awful things they do to each other. Don’t read this book with your “adult” mindset, try instead to read it as a “kid,” and you’ll see why it was Newberry worthy.