The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Book Review: The Midwife’s Apprentice

There are some books that I see at the library or a book store or on someone’s shelf and find myself thinking, “Hm, you know, I really ought to read that one.” I think this is especially true for the Newbery Medal and Newbery Honor books. I have quite a collection of them at home and lesser collection at school, and I encourage my students to read them and try to figure out what about the book merited being “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” (or why someone thought it was worthy of it). I have not formally signed up for the Newbery Challenge, which is simply reading the full collection of Newbery Medal winners, but I have read quite a few of them.

Which is why I find myself surprised when I see a title that I’ve seen before but never read. Especially when it is a book that was published way back when I was still in middle school in 1995. One such book is The Midwife’s Apprentice” by Karen Cushman. Published in 1995, this book is a quick read that I picked up at the library a few weeks ago when I was looking for something completely different. It sat in my “To Read” pile for quite some time before I finally picked it up and started reading. Before I knew it, I had read the first third of the book in one sitting. I went to dinner at my in-laws’ last night and read more. Then I read before I went to sleep. I woke up this morning and realised that I had already read two-thirds of the book!

I have a book I keep at school to read at school, but I felt like I just had to finish The Midwife’s Apprentice first, so I tossed it in my backpack and finished reading this morning while my students were doing their own independent reading or writing. (I don’t always read when my class is, but every now and then I have the time available and I like to join with them in independent reading, especially when I don’t have to constantly remind students to get on task!)

All in all, I think it took me a total of six hours to read this book. Maybe. It could have been less. At just over 120 pages, that means I was averaging around 20 pages an hour. Not too shabby, eh?

The Midwife’s Apprentice is the story of a girl who grows up as an orphan in medieval England. She is called Brat by most people and Dung by others. Then a midwife finds her asleep in the dung heap in the barn and says she looks like a dung beetle, and so she is called Beetle. The midwife, Jane, is about to throw Beetle out of the village but Beetle offers to work in exchange for a morsel of food and a spot on the floor to sleep. And so she becomes an apprentice to the midwife.

The boys in the village taunt her and throw rocks at her, the midwife constantly belittles her and tells her she is stupid and good for nothing, and the girls in the village treat her unkindly. But then Beetle meets a man who mistakes her for a girl who could read named Alyce. Beetle is struck by the revelation that, to those who don’t know her, she looks like someone who could read. And someone who can read is not someone with a name like Brat, Dung, or Beetle. And so she takes on the name Alyce and insists on being called that by everyone.

Alyce is never allowed in the cottages when women are giving birth because Jane is afraid of her learning too much and taking away her customers, but she learns a lot about midwifery anyway. She saves a village boy from drowning and the two become friends. She helps him deliver his cows twin calves. And she suddenly finds herself helping to deliver a baby in the middle of the night while the midwife is away tending to another mother in labour.

Through a series of unfortunate events, Alyce finds herself running away from her apprenticeship with Jane and takes on a job at a local inn. She learns to read, to care for customers, to make bread and stew, and she helps shear sheep. Her self-worth increases and she finally starts to realise that she’s not as stupid as everyone always told her. My favourite part of this entire story is this one simple but profound statement: “Just because you don’t know everything don’t mean that you know nothing.”

How often are we put down by others? Friends, family, acquaintances, peers, teachers? As a teacher, it is my prime goal to follow the first rule of medicine: Do no harm. Alternatively, I feel that Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics is easily adapted to education: A teacher may not injure a student or, through inaction, allow a student to come to harm. The Midwife’s Apprentice is a great story for middle grade students and older. I don’t know if I would recommend it to my fourth graders, because there are some themes that may be a bit more mature than they are ready to grapple with, but if one of my students wanted to read this book, I would not stand in his or her way.


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