Not quite the usual coming-of-age story but one which today's youth can still relate. The protagonist, eventually named 'Alyce,' is shown first as an unloved, unwanted orphan who, through her own determination and grit, finds her place in the world of medieval Europe, a place, if not of honor, at least of some respectability as the Midwife's Apprentice.
Karen Cushman has given young adults a book worth thinking over. Cushman has done her research well and portrays a real medieval life that is not the 'Camelot' of legends. Life was hard in these times and the main character, Alyce, experiences life almost at its worse. Cushman's descriptions in the opening chapter of the dung heap that Alyce chooses to sleep in, gives today's youth cause to appreciate the insulated homes they live in. Interestingly enough, when Alyce is 'saved' by the midwife, her new place to sleep, in the midwife's home, is actually not as warm as the calefacient dung heap.
The main character undergoes several changes in the novel, not the least being her name. She starts out in the story as 'Brat' moves to 'Beetle', then to 'Dung Beetle' and finally to 'Alyce'.
As a parallel to Alyce, the cat in the story is also tormented in life until Alyce saves him. He too, receives a name and new identity.
Karen Cushman allows time to be fluid in this novel, which allows the pace to move quickly along for the reader. Cushman shows research of the time period by using time period dialect, including a few phrases such as "Corpus bones!" or "I be sore afraid" , giving opportunity to discuss vocabulary and current phrases with a class of students.
As all good novels must come to an end, so does this one with Cushman leaving Alyce to decide her own fate. Alyce does so using her new knowledge of herself and what she can do, when she tells the midwife, "I will try again and again. I can do what you tell me and take what you give me, and I know how to try and risk and fail and try again and not give up. I will not go away." Even though the reader is left to decide how Alyce's life will progress afterwards, one is left feeling that she will succeed at whatever Life gives her.
The Midwife's Apprentice is both an informative and a satisfying read for those interested in medieval life.
School Library Journal: "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 s Alyce come of age and heart. Earthy humor, the foibles of humans both high and low, and a fascinating mix of superstition and genuinely helpful herbal remedies attached to childbirth make this a truly delightful introduction to a world seldom seen in children's literature."
Booklist: The characters are drawn with zest and affection but no false reverence...Kids will like this short, fast-paced narrative about a hero who discovers that she's not ugly or stupid or alone."
Compare and Contrast with some of the legends of Camelot.
Use as a literature connection for sixth grade social studies medieval unit of study.
Encourage students to visit local Renaissance Festivals if able.