In Medieval England, an adolescent girl named Brat with no family, home, or self-confidence is plucked off a village dungheap by Jane the Midwife. Jane is a sharp, hard woman who quickly puts Brat to work after re-christening her "Beetle." But she doesn't let Beetle inside during labor or deliveries, and everything Beetle learns about midwifery she learns by spying, putting two and two together, and generally being much more resourceful and alert than she or anyone else gives her credit for.
AsThe Midwife's Apprentice is shuffled through the pains and small joys of the disenfranchised life, she gradually develops a sense of self, even giving herself a real name, Alyce, and refusing to be called Beetle any longer. She helps others in need, saves a few lives (including that of her orange cat, Purr), takes silent revenge on people who've wronged her, is told she's pretty, and runs away from Jane the Midwife to work for Jennet at John Dark's inn.
Though Jane mistreats Brat/Beetle/Alyce throughout the novel, we learn near the end that she actually values the girl's intelligence and hard work. What she needs in an apprentice, however, the girl doesn't have—confidence and persistence. It takes a final rejection for Alyce to finally realize what is lacking in her character; when she proves to Jane that she's overcome this obstacle, the midwife takes her on as a real apprentice to be trusted with the tricks and secrets of the trade.
Karen Cushman paints Medieval England in vivid colors, though much of the detail seems more like something from a cheap Monty Python knock-off than a work of historical fiction. Sure, there was witchcraft, superstition, filth, drunkenness, stupidity, and barbarism in the Middle Ages (just as there are today), but Cushman clearly overplays these things while showing us nothing of the nobility, scholarly progress, or mundanity of life in the feudal system.
Instead, we get lots of farting, snotty noses, young people caught rolling in the hay (both figuratively and literally), drunken boys tormenting small animals and children, so-called scholars recording utter nonsense, and the like. The church plays far from a central role in the story or the lives of its characters, and the brief appearance of the village priest shows him to be a dimwitted fellow who thinks the Devil makes people do things.
This is all troubling in a work for adolescent readers, not because they shouldn't be exposed to the truth of the world and people, but because it's such an unbalanced and caricatured picture of the Middle Ages. Far more troubling, however, is the message Cushman weaves subtly throughout the text. On the surface, it's a tale of a young woman gaining enough self-confidence to make a name for herself and her way in the world.
But really it's about the fact that young Brat/Beetle/Alyce is without innate value as a human being until she can prove to people that she is valuable and worthwhile to society. It's a motif that's become so used in our postmodern era that it's already become blase, but it's very dangerous. Cushman never makes the point that Alyce is innately valuable because she's made in the image of God, a truth most Medievalists would surely have known.
Instead, Alyce is portrayed as the ideal existential postmodern person—one who must create her own identity and destiny through acts of self-determination in the service of society. If Cushman had spent more time studying the worldview of the Middle Ages and less time focusing on the supposed seedy details of daily life, she might have written a decent book. As it is, the appendix about Medieval midwifery is the best part, but not enough to rescue an anachronistic tale that falls far short.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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