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The Midwife's Apprentice (Newbery Medal Book) Hardcover – March 27, 1995

4.1 out of 5 stars 216 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Karen Cushman likes to write with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek, and her feisty female characters firmly planted in history. In The Midwife's Apprentice, which earned the 1996 Newbery Medal, this makes a winning combination for children and adult readers alike. Like her award-winning book Catherine, Called Birdy, the story takes place in medieval England. This time our protagonist is Alyce, who rises from the dung heap (literally) of homelessness and namelessness to find a station in life--apprentice to the crotchety, snaggletoothed midwife Jane Sharp. On Alyce's first solo outing as a midwife, she fails to deliver. Instead of facing her ignorance, Alyce chooses to run from failure--never a good choice. Disappointingly, Cushman does not offer any hardships or internal wrestling to warrant Alyce's final epiphanies, and one of the book's climactic insights is when Alyce discovers that lo and behold she is actually pretty! Still, Cushman redeems her writing, as always, with historical accuracy, saucy dialogue, fast-paced action, and plucky, original characters that older readers will eagerly devour. (Ages 12 and older) --Gail Hudson --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Having focused on a well-born young heroine in her Newbery Honor debut novel, Catherine, Called Birdy, Cushman returns to a similar medieval English setting, this time to imagine how the other half lived. The strengths of this new, relatively brief novel match those of its predecessor: Cushman has an almost unrivaled ability to build atmosphere, and her evocation of a medieval village, if not scholarly in its authenticity, is supremely colorful and pungent. The protagonist here first appears asleep in a heap of dung; the "rotting and moiling" of the refuse give forth heat enough to compensate for the stench. Homeless and nameless, she can remember no time when she did not wander from village to village. She is rescued from the dung heap by a sharp-tongued local midwife, who feeds her in exchange for work. Gradually the girl forges an identity for herself and learns some timeless truths. Some of the characterizations lack consistency (particularly that of the midwife), the plot depends on a few too many conveniences and the development of the themes seems hurried?but no matter. The force of the ambience produces more than enough momentum to propel the reader from start to finish in a single happy sitting. Ages 12-up.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Age Range: 12 and up
  • Grade Level: 7 and up
  • Lexile Measure: 1240L (What's this?)
  • Hardcover: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Clarion Books; First Edition edition (March 27, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395692296
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395692295
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.4 x 7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (216 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,338,270 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This slim novel begins with a scrawny young girl sleeping in a dung heap. The heroine, who is nameless as well as homeless, uses the dung for heat, a decision that Jane Sharp, the town's midwife, recognizes as a clever one. Jane hires the girl and names her Beetle, for dung beetle.
Beetle is a smart, compassionate girl, but a timid one, too. She allows Jane Sharp to boss her around and the local boys to tease her mercilessly.
Karen Cushman chose the England of the Middle Ages as a setting for the book, and has researched the subject exhaustively. We learn about village life, medicine, feudal structure, and the place of women in that society. Most enjoyable to follow is Beetle's progress from a scared, meek little girl to a self-assured young woman who has chosen her own name: Alyce.
While not romanticizing Alyce's situation, Cushman makes it clear how much more is available to her than to upper class women of her time. At the end of the book, Alyce chooses her own future from several options. She selects the life that will allow her the most independence. With a name and a career of her own choosing, Alyce has come far indeed from the dung heap.
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Format: Audio Cassette
I assumed, wrongly, that because this book was a Newberry winner that it would be a good book for my daughter to read. The cover makes this book look inviting and is quite misleading about the book, in my opinion. I realize that many book covers do this.
In the future, if I don't know of a book or it doesn't come from a book list I trust, I am not going to assign the book to my daughter for reading.

The story centers around Beatle, aka Brat, aka Alyce. She is found by the midwife in a dung heap outside her home trying to stay warm. Brat is the bottom of the food chain and has been as long as she can remember. She endures the continual abuse of the midwife (and her neglect) for reasons that are hard for me to understand. She does not see herself as valuable. To the midwife, she is someone to be used for all she can get out of her. She leaves at one point (spoiler) and still returns at the end of the story trying to gain the midwife's favor.

There are several thematic elements that I do not think are appropriate for 4th and 5th graders in this book and the book was extremely difficult for my daughter to stomach who will be in 6th grade in the coming school year. There is an interesting (if that's the appropriate word) scene in which Brat witnesses the midwife in adultery. There is so much constant emotional and verbal abuse throughout the book. For my daughter, this book illustrated to her what abuse looks like. How horrible it is. How it wrecks people. She couldn't understand why Brat returned to the midwife at the end trying to gain her favor. I explained how people in abusive situations often return to the situation, though it is horrible for them.
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Format: Paperback
I was very taken with this story. This tale follows the trials and tribulations of a young girl (Beetle) in early medieval times. Finding herself apprenticed to the local midwife, the girl learns the tricks of the trade, even while gaining a little more wit and confidence in herself. The heroine is ignorant at the beginning and, quite realistically, does not suddenly end the book with a head full of knowledge and wisdom in everything she does. The arc of this book is especially remarkable. Following Beetle's successful delivering of a calf she also manages to deliver a baby to a poor woman that the official midwife left. Interestingly, this doesn't mean that Beetle is suddenly endowed with perfect midwifing abilities. Failing to deliver another child, she must rely on her mentor once again, crushing her burgeoning ego. The moral, that nothing is easy and that you must work at what you want, is a good one.
There were some slightly odd moments in the book. The midwife is described as being an envious/jealous type who cannot abide the notion of having a rival. Yet she is overheard later in the book, almost praising the girl's abilities. Still, this is a small quibble. I enjoyed reading about the girl's progress. It would be wonderfully paired with "Crispin: The Cross of Lead". Both stories follow ignorant orphans who learn a new profession and end their stories by going into the respective honest professions they desire. The time periods are not far off either. This book may or may not read aloud well. I don't know. There are some touchy moments (the near rape of Beetle by drunken boys, the midwife's affair with the baker, the well described births) that might make the squeamish (or their parents) uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I found this an important book and one worth remembering.
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Format: Audio Cassette
So often in modern fictional literature, the medieval age has been glamorized into a beautiful, romantic time. But this book is here to tell a grittier and more accurate story. Life was dirty, smelly, hard and short, especially if you weren't upper class. Those are the facts, there was happiness, sure, but it wasn't wrapped up in a tidy package.

Our heroine, (eventually self-named Alyce) is homeless and has only herself to depend on, until the midwife takes her in. It's not a gesture of kindess, but rather business sense. Jane the midwife can use Alyce for hard labor, and pay her with meager portions of food and a roof over her head. Alyce is a smart gal, even though she originally can't read or write, (very common if you were a peasant) and she learns the business, despite her 'boss' trying to keep her ignorant as to avoid eventual competion.

In the meantime, Alyce endears herself to the majority of the village, though it wasn't overnight, trust me. Her best friend is her cat purr, whom sticks with her through thick and thin. There is a village boy Jack who at first makes her life a living hell, but becomes a friend, and probably a potential love interest someday. (But that's just a guess, and the romantic in me talkng.)

I won't give any more away about the plot, and trust me, there's a lot more to it than that. It's a simple, human story, about a not so pretty once upon a time. I first read it when I was twelve, and it's been a favorite every since. It's about starting with nothing, and making a path for yourself. I wouldn't mind having half Alyce's pluck, myself.
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