The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

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I enjoyed The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman, a Newbery-winning novel. Cushman believably created a 1300s scene, and I liked learning about midwifery and superstition in the middle ages. While modern girls won’t face trials as extreme as the girl’s in the novel, they still must develop self-confidence and determine what their own dreams are. The story is therefore highly relevant to pre-teens today, and I only wished it had been longer and more fully developed.

In the beginning, a nameless orphan girl rests in a dung heap on a cold winter’s night. When Jane the midwife tells her to scram in the morning, the girl instead begs for bread, offering to work in exchange for it. Thus it is that the girl (called both Brat and Beetle in the beginning) becomes the midwife’s apprentice.

Beetle’s story is one of self-discovery. In the beginning, she accepts that she is nobody: she hopes for nothing and expects nothing. But as she helps Jane and finds small successes, she learns that she is an individual and she can have dreams.

My favorite part was when she gave herself a name. While Beetle is at the fair shopping for Jane, a man mistakes her for Alyce, a girl who can read. Beetle is shocked when she realizes that no one else knows her own internal struggles: why couldn’t she be a girl who could read? She takes that girl’s name as her own and becomes Alyce.

Alyce faces both success and frustration, and she seeks for friendship and a place to belong. In the end, she also must decide what it is that she personally wants from life, because she is an individual with fundamental worth.

Because the audiobook was less than three hours long and I took a long drive one day, I listened to The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman in one or two days.  Alyce’s personal development was predictable to the point of cliché; the formulaic climax of the novel was also a bit rushed and, to some extent, unbelievable. Nevertheless, it was well done and enjoyable for me.

I discussed The Midwife’s Apprentice with my (new) book club; the discussion was just plain fun for me because I like making connections to my own life. This is a book that I’d love to share with a pre-teen girl, despite the clichés.

Reviewed on May 25, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Christina, yes, it’s a good book for that age!

    Kathy, I read it for an adult (all women) book club. One woman said she’d listened to the audiobook with her pre-teen son and he also was very interested in it too. So I guess not just for girls!

    Natasha, I’d like to read more of Cushman’s books too. My friend says she always does a great job at creating a historical scene.

  • I’m trying to remember if I ever read this before. I remember the cover and I know my middle school library had it. I’m just not sure if I ever picked it up… regardless, it sounds like I should!

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