In just over 120 pages, author Karen Cushman weaves a story about the life of a starving and homeless orphan girl in medieval England. When readers are first introduced to Alyce, who is initially known as Beetle, she seeks warmth from the bitter cold in a pile of warm manure. Details like this are what bring Cushman’s story to life and what convey the harsh reality of Alyce’s day-to-day life. Cushman’s character-driven story gives readers a sense of what life might have been like for a poor girl in medieval England. Children may be surprised to learn that a child without a family was not necessarily sent to an orphanage or somewhere similar. Cushman is careful not to use modern slang and is generous, though not overly so, with descriptions of food, clothing, and tools of the time period. All of this helps to evoke a setting appropriate for the time period. “Characters are sketched briefly but with telling, witty detail, and the very scents and sounds of the land and people’s occupations fill each page as Alyce comes of age and heart” (Miller 1995).
Particularly interesting are the descriptions of a midwife’s job. The Author’s Note at the end of the book gives further detail about the history of midwifery. Many details may surprise readers. An important aspect of the novel is how Cushman is able to include themes of independence, education, self-discovery, and feminism. Alyce thinks she is less than a person. She considers herself stupid and useless. She perseveres in harsh conditions, both physically and emotionally, and begins to grow intellectually and spiritually as she pays attention to what others around her do, remembers those lessons, and applies them in her own life. A poignant moment in the story occurs when Alyce succeeds at something as she had not succeeded before. “At that, Alyce felt so much pride and satisfaction that she had to let them out somehow, and so she smiled, which felt so good that she thought she might do it again.”
The Midwife’s Apprentice won the 1996 Newbery Medal and a 1998 Young Reader’s Choice Award. This short novel is a great starter book for children who are new to historical fiction. Try reading it aloud to a classroom or asking students to take turns reading it aloud. After each chapter, prompt students with a discussion. Alyce’s destitution is is an excellent discussion point for children. Ask children why Alyce sleeps in the dung heap and why she stayed with Jane, the midwife, despite how mean Jane is to Alyce.
Miller, Sue. May 1995. School Library Journal. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|1220566|47089429&mc=USA#. Accessed November 3, 2013.