An Award-Winner: The Midwife’s Apprentice

Author: Karen Cushman

Publisher: Clarion Books, 1996

Genre: Historical Fiction

My Rating: A

I have a fondness for books that have won or been nominated for the Newberry Award. These awards are given by the American Library Association annually for the most distinguished children’s books. Most of the books I’ve read and loved are aimed for children in late elementary/middle school.

The Midwife’s Apprentice is the story of a homeless orphan-girl living in the Middle Ages. She’s not only homeless, she’s nameless. She spends her days wandering from village to village in the English countryside. She eats whatever she can find and sleeps in the warmest places she can find even if that is a dung heap. (For more on that scroll down my blog to the First Paragraph from this book that I posted on Tuesday, January 22nd.)

One morning, as the girl was waking up from a night spent sleeping on a dung heap, the village midwife happens by and the girl asks for something to eat. The midwife promises food if the girl will do some work for her. After a long day of work the girl is given some stale bread. She’s also given a name: Dung Beetle. Beetle hangs around and continues to work for the apprentice in exchange for a bit of food and then some straw on which to sleep.

The midwife recognizes a hard worker and a smart one too. One of Beetle’s chores is to gather the plants, herbs, and other items the midwife uses in her job. Beetle also helps with the dirtiest jobs when the midwife assists at a birth. Although Beetle s not allowed in the room with the pregnant woman, Beetle gradually learns about midwifery and is called upon to help with a birth when the midwife is away.

The midwife is not a benevolent person. She’s not helping Beetle; she’s using her. The realities of life are very evident in this novel. Something to eat and a dry, warm place to sleep is the main goal of the key characters.

The obsession with food can be seen in the following passage. Beetle has befriended a young orphan boy she calls Edward. This conversation touched me. Edward asks Beetle:

“What is the best thing you ever ate?”

“Hot soup on a cold day, I think.”

“Once long ago a monk gave me a fig. It was a wonderful thing, soft and sweet. After that I had nothing to eat for three days but the smell of the fig on my fingers.”

This passage has stayed with me along with other parts of the story. Have I ever been that hungry? Never. My over-full belly only thinks it knows hunger pains. It’s impossible for me to not think about children today who go for long periods of time without good food – those whose bellies are filled with real hunger pains.

There wasn’t a lot of caring for others in The Midwife’s Apprentice, especially for those less fortunate. Was it just the Middle Ages or this particular village or do most people only care about themselves? The novel raises lots of good questions in the mind of the reader.

I’ve found the Newberry Medal winning books (and the nominees) to be charming, interesting, adventurous, educational and fun. I always learn something new. In The Midwife’s Apprentice I learned a little bit about what a midwife did during the Middle Ages. The story also shared what life was like during this time period. The other Newberry winners I’ve read have done the same thing – taught me something new but were such fun that I didn’t think about it being a book I had to read.

If you’d like a list of the Newberry Medal winners from 1922 to present, visit here: NEWBERRY MEDAL  Next Monday, January 28th, the library association will be announcing a new list of winners for 2013. I can’t wait to see the list. I know it will be another set of fun books for me and other children of all ages.

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4 Responses to An Award-Winner: The Midwife’s Apprentice

  1. Oh my such high praise and it really does sound very good. Thanks for sharing Margot.

  2. Staci says:

    I loved this book. This was my first adventure with Cushman’s writing and I was captivated. I’ve read 4 other books by her and really enjoyed them!!! I was tickled to see that you were reading this one!!

  3. Mystica says:

    Thanks for this post on a book which is new to me.

  4. kelley says:

    sounds like a really good one. I’m always impressed with the books you pick.

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