The Midwife's Apprentice

by Karen Cushman

Hardcover, 1995

Call number



Clarion Books (1995), Edition: First Edition, 128 pages


In medieval England, a nameless, homeless girl is taken in by a sharp-tempered midwife, and in spite of obstacles and hardship, eventually gains the three things she most wants: a full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world.

User reviews

LibraryThing member juliette07
This Newbery medal award winner is set in 14th century mediaeval England. In a sense that fact is immaterial in terms of the story. What the setting does offer is a wonderful reason for using delightful, varied and unusual vocabulary. I marked many passages of beautiful writing reminiscent of the
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period setting yet deeply adding to the depth of the story. The Author’s note at the end was just what I wanted as I completed the book as it answered many of my puzzles as I read.

The central character Beetle is ‘needed by no one’ at one point. Gradually, glimmerings of self belief appear in response to the actions of other characters. At one point she is given a comb that she has much coveted. However it was given with a wink and a compliment and although ‘she did not know it, they were also gifts, and they nestled in Beetle’s heart and stayed there’. Wondrously, Beetle then begins to share what she learns along her journey and others begin to value her. She is painted as a kind and humble character and the fruit of those traits becomes increasingly evident. Beetle continues to learn from her experiences and in doing so is able to give increasingly of herself. Naturally she comes up against events that mean she loses faith in herself, yet even then the reader learns that the friendship and loyalty she has shown is repaid and proffers great comfort.

The main question the story poses is found towards the end when she is asked by Magister Reese ‘And what, inn girl, do you want of life?’ By the end she discovers for herself the great truth of life and through her actions she gives Edward (a small waif) the self confidence and skills he had previously lacked – and so the circle is continued.

An excellent and very satisfying read with themes ranging from success to failure, perseverance, life long learning, hope and compassion. This was well deserving of the Newbery Medal award and would be delightful to read aloud.
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LibraryThing member PaulaWilds123-
The story is set in 14th century England, about a homeless waif named Brat. She is found in a dung heap by the village midwife. Brat is rename Beetle and works very hard for stern Jane the midwife for her food and board. It is a story of determination of a young empathetic girl who wants more out
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of life. She saves a cat (Purr), from the town bullies, which becomes her best friend. She helps another homeless young 6 year old boy who goes and works at the manor. When the midwife breaks her leg Beetle goes to the Saint Swithin’s Day Fair to purchase the herbs and leather flasks that Jane needed. While at the fair a merchant takes a liking to Beetle and gives her a comb. She changes her name to Alyce. When she is afraid to deliver a child by herself without the midwife she believes she is a failure and runs away. Alyce works at an Inn and while there she learns more about herself, than returns to the village and the midwife.

Personal Response:
This is a story of perseverance, survival and overcoming obstacles in order to reach goals. Alyce swallows her pride and returns to the midwife and continues to learn. I believe she probably became a compassionate skilled midwife, better than Jane who was pretty harsh. However, I do believe Jane does have a heart. She had given birth to 6 children and none lived. She found and helped a homeless waif first known as Brat. I like this book.
Classroom Extensions:
1. Have the students compare and contrast the differences between what life would be like in the 14th century and now.
2. Homelessness was a problem then and now, people go hungry every day in America so I would ask that the students donate outgrown clothes to the Salvation Army, and have them organize a food drive to give to the local food bank.
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LibraryThing member elljazz
A few years ago when Sam was old enough to participate in our community center's Medieval Festival, the library offered a reading circle in partnership with the event. The book they decided to read was Karen Cushman's, "The Midwife's Apprentice."

I had never heard of this book before but was soon
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drawn into the story and the life of poor Alyce, the much abused, but very bright apprentice. Being a supporter of midwives and homebirths in general (having had several homebirths myself)I was also intrigued by the stories of midwifery and childbirth from an anthropological standpoint.

Sam and I thoroughly enjoyed the book and even did some of the activities I found on line to compliment our reading. Two years later Gabriel was ready for the feast and I brought out our copy of The Midwife's apprentice and found I enjoyed it as much as I had the first time! I even borrowed the library's copy of "Kathryn called Birdie" which was the followup to "The Midwife's Apprentice" and enjoyed that as well.

I was very surprised then to discover that one of the Catholic Yahoo Groups I belong to has banned the sale of this book from its site. It didn't really explain why, but I found this review from the Catholic League that may be related:

The 1996 Newbery Medal winner, The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman, takes place in the Middle Ages. The midwife of the story is a Catholic who goes to Mass on Sunday, yet she is hard-hearted to the point of cruelty, doing her job "without care, compassion, or joy." An adulterous relationship thrown in for good measure intensifies the degradation of her character. One asks if it could be mere coincidence that the midwife is the only person in the story depicted as an observant Catholic. What is worse, the author, in a postscript note characterizing the medieval midwife’s repertory as a blend of herbal medicine and magic, states, "Superstitions included the use of relics, water from holy wells, charms, and magic words." It is highly insulting to Catholics to have the use of sacramentals equated with superstitious practices, which are condemned by the Church. The many other honors bestowed on The Midwife’s Apprentice show that there is considerable support in the library and publishing fields for anti-Catholic bias.

I think this book is probably best for Jr. High or late elementary. Gabe enjoyed me reading it to him last year when he was in the fourth grade. It is the story of a very poor, unnamed, orphan girl in medieval times, whose main occupation is to stave of the hunger pains constantly present in her stomach. She survives by eating scraps and digging into a dung heap at night to keep warm. She tries to stay unnoticed and out of the way until she is run out of the village. Thus she survives like this, traveling alone and unwanted from place to place. She is more than happy then to find regular work with the midwife who at least gives her a bit of bread to eat, although the midwife is very cruel and cold to her otherwise. This girl, called Dung Beatle, learns the art of midwifery by watching the midwife attend births. She learns about the different herbs and remedies the midwife uses during birth and for nursing mothers. A high point in the book for me is when she goes to the fair to buy supplies for the midwife and someone mistakes her for a girl named Alyce. She thinks it is wonderful that someone could mistake HER for some with such a pretty name and from that point on she refers to herself as Alyce.

Alyce struggles with her confidence and with a sense of belonging to the village. Moreover once she is better fed, she spends a lot of time coming to terms with her life and her purpose.

I think the book gives a real flavor for the time. Medieval times were full of superstitions and Cushman does illustrate that in her book. The Catholic league opposed how the author used relics and sacramentals in the book, but anyone with an Eastern European grandmother might remember similar superstitious practices that were more cultural really than anything else. The Catholic League also made a big deal out of the midwife attending mass and yet being so cruel and unkind as well as carrying on an adulterous relationship. It was my impression that the entire village was Catholic and they weren't an entirely virtuous lot. However, I did not take that as a slam against Catholicism but rather a more realistic look at human nature and medieval living. Catholics unfortunately are not immune to sin. The midwife is a supporting character. The protagonist is the orphaned and impoverished Alyce. This is the story of her journey from just surviving in extreme poverty, to finding a sense of worth and purpose in this world.

The Midwife's Apprentice is an uplifting and interesting story. The few parts that might be objectionable (and they didn't offend me because I took them mostly as historical or studies in human nature rather than as anti-Catholicism) can easily be explained by parents and perhaps even used as a springboard to other conversations.
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LibraryThing member JenJ.
Brat, Dung Beetle, or Alyce - whichever name our heroine goes by, she is full of pluck and intelligence - two qualities she gravely needs to survive as an orphan in the Middle Ages. It is Jane Sharp, the village midwife, who plucks Alyce from the dung heap and gives her shelter and sustenance,
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though no kindness, for her hard work. Slowly, Alyce begins to learn about the world around her and the work of a midwife, though she remains convinced of her own stupidity. Never sure, never confident, Alyce slowly works to find what she most wants - "a place in this world."

Cushman does historical fiction with strong female characters better than almost anyone else. The Midwife's Apprentice is remarkable because, despite its short length, Cushman manages to create a character so imperfect and yet so appealing, that the reader will unreservedly root for her to thrive. Cushman pays no less attention to the setting which is full of lush historical details that make this an ideal companion for units on the Middle Ages. The obstacles that Alyce faces, both within herself and in her world would make for great discussion as well.

Listened to the Recorded Books CD edition narrated by Jenny Sterlin. Sterlin handles the medieval language with assurance and a slight accent that never distracts from the story. Previously read.
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LibraryThing member debnance
The story opens with a young girl with no name, no family, burying herself in a dung heap for warmth. The girl is taken in by a midwife, Jane, who dubs her Beetle for her choice of sleeping quarters. Jane’s decision to take Beetle in is not due to benevolence, however, but greed; Jane sees that
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Beetle is a hard worker who will lighten her load. Jane gives Beetle all the difficult work of her profession, but she is careful to keep Beetle away from observing Jane during delivery, fearing Beetle will learn the secrets of midwifery and become a competitor.Slowly Beetle grows in experience and self-confidence, saving a boy from drowning, aiding a cow in delivering twins, even helping a mother with an impossible delivery give birth to a healthy girl. Beetle renames herself Alyce and she begins to learn Jane’s secrets and aid Jane in deliveries.Then Alyce is confronted with a tough delivery. She finds she must call Jane in to save the mother and child. Alyce is left feeling despondent, useless. She runs away. It is only after much reflection that she is able to acknowledge her love for midwifery and to accept that failure is part of learning and to return to her work with Jane.
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LibraryThing member mcivalleri
The setting of this story is painted very well by the author. While not strictly accurate on medeival history, its strength is its bold confrontation with issues. Some parents might balk at some of the content (an affair, rape [almost], graphic relation of birthing), but that shouldn't keep a
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school librarian to keep this important book.
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LibraryThing member IEliasson
The Midwife’s Apprentice employs the arcane language of medieval England to bring to life the world of Alyce, the title character. The forceful voice of Alyce enlivens this quiet story of self-discovery with insights abounding in the ultimate meaning of life.
LibraryThing member mitchsar
The Midwife’s Apprentice tells the story of a young girl with no one to parent or guide her, yet she has such a good heart that by the end of the story people and animals alike are drawn to her. The book is set in the Middle Ages with many historically accurate details, which enhance the plot and
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intrigue the reader. An author’s note is included in the back of the book. Recommended to all high schoolers, primarily girls.
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LibraryThing member molliewatts
Beetle is an orphan in 14th century England. When she is discovered in a dung heap by the town's midwife, Beetle is renamed Alyce and becomes the midwife's apprentice. The midwife has a sharp tongue and Alyce doesn't know if she's cut out for the job, but she soon adjusts to her life.
LibraryThing member Orpgirl1
Having first read Cushman's Catherine, Called Birdy, I jumped into reading this award-winning novel with high expectations. The Midwife's Apprentice follows Beetle, an orphan without even a name, in 14th century England. Taken in by a harsh-mannered midwife, Beetle is at first overjoyed to not be
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sleeping in smelly dung. She slowly starts to learn the trade of midwifery, overcoming the judgement and scorn of those around her. When she abruptly leaves the midwife after what she considers a failure, Beetle (now called Alyce) must learn to know only fight for what she wants, but that she is worth fighting for.
The Midwife's Apprentice has been challenged by many due to its coarse language, vivid depictions of childbirth, and scenes of sexual advances toward Alyce. I was unfazed by these passages, and actually saw them as more than appropriate for a time period during which children's innocence was neither prized or warranted due to harsh living conditions. Alyce emerges as a heroine full of grit and determination, but made more likable by the fact that she'd rather use this passion for others than for herself. Cushman does use authentic Olde English language and terms in the book, but nothing was so unknown or off-putting that I was unable to follow the storyline. The characters around Alyce do at times seem as if they are solely filling an archtypal role, but inherent in 14th century England was the reality that you were assigned a sole task that even shaped your name. While reaing this book you'll root for Alyce and her loving cat-but my mind did wander back to Catherine at times, my true Cushman favorite character.
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LibraryThing member Whisper1
This heartwarming tale set in fourteenth century England, is the 1996 Newbery Medal award winning book.

A pitiful homeless young woman is poor in every possible sense. Lacking food, a place to stay, no means of support and no name, the waif-like girl lives in a dung heap for shelter.

Taken in by a
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midwife, she not only learns a trade, but most importantly, the character, who struggles with self doubt, finds beauty and confidence in helping others.

Rich in detail, Cushman accurately, sensitively depicts the harsh cruelties of medieval existence when life was brutal, and survival was a day to day accomplishment.

I very much like the way in which the author developed the character from a nameless down-trodden street vagabond into a spunky, talented young woman who not only gains a name (Alyce) but who also symbolically finds a way in the world.

This is a delightful book of a girl born to fail who, against all odds, finds confidence and inner strength.
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LibraryThing member lilibrarian
She has no name and no home until a local midwife takes her in and starts training her, allowing her to find a home and confidence in herself.
LibraryThing member mirandamae18
A serious, but humorous book about the life of a young homeless girl. The book especially look at what it was like for a young girl to grow up without a home or family and what she did to survive. This story has a lot of life lessons within the text and is one that older students would enjoy
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reading. It really focused on the life choices we can make, and how they will affect our lives as well as the lives of others. I don't feel this book would be appropriate for my grade level, but I do think it would make a great class discussion book for older students.
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LibraryThing member nmhale
Another story set in medieval England, but since I owned it, I thought I might as well read it. I'm glad that I did! I enjoyed this story much more than Door in the Wall, for a variety of reasons. First of all, the characters are much more complex. No plain black and white, good and bad people
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here. Second, I liked the problems that Beetle/Alyce, the main character, faced. Her struggle to find her name, her wants, herself, were engrossing. Third, we have a female main character. What can I say, I'm partial to strong female leads.

The story is about this girl, Beetle, who is an orphan living in times not kind to orphans. She's had to rely on her own wits to survive, ignoring the taunts and cruelties of townsfolk, stealing and scavenging, even burrowing into dung heaps to keep warm. It is in one of these dung heaps that Jane, a midwife, finds her and takes her home. However, Jane is no philanthropist. She sees Beetle as cheap labor, willing to work for lodging and little food. Despite her still inhospitable surroundings, Beetle slowly finds herself adapting the the town and people, becoming acquainted with herself and growing stronger, and finally discovering who she is and what she wants. A really heartwarming story little story that presents the world in its imperfect shape, yet offers hope for even the most lost.
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LibraryThing member artlibby
This book tells the plight of a young homeless and nameless girl in medieval England. The book opens up with the young girl trying to satisfy the most basic of requirements: trying to stay warm and find a bite to eat. Readers will feel for the main character, but she is difficult to identify with
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at times. For instance, she does not have a real name until halfway through the book, allowing local villagers instead to call her what they please. Most of the time these names were far from nice! She is taken on by a local midwife where she works to the best of her ability without ever developing a sense of confidence. This lack of confidence and self identity leads to a character who allows outside circumstances to dictate her life and will frustrate readers. Additionally, the book recreates a very harsh depiction of medieval England that is filled with unsavory characters. However, this Newbery winner will provide readers with a glimpse into the past in addition to the eventual blossoming of the main character. Suitable for elementary through high school libraries.
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LibraryThing member sgerbic
Reviewed Oct 1998

Another winner for Karen Cushman. I read this book in 90 minutes and cried though most of it. A young girl with no history or name is found by a cruel hard midwife. The girl who was known as Brat later changes her name to Alyce. She learns the tools of the trade, but finds
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knowledge to be of little use but practice and patience to be more valuable. She fails with one birth and runs away to work in an Inn. She meets several new people and also to read, later she fins she must make a choice. A young girl who was wanted by no one now is needed by many.

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LibraryThing member smyers
A young girl with no family, no name and no home depends on piles of dung for warmth at night stumbles onto a Midwife who befriends her and offers employment. Through the book, "Beetle", Alyce, comes of age, and learns to become a Midwife's apprentice. She is offered a dirt floor to sleep on and
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scraps of food as payment for her employment. Alyce now has a name (she gave herself), a home, food and a friend in the cat who belongs to the critchety Midwife. Alyce learns self confidence, and independence through the book and who she is. A good book to read.
I personally didn't care for the book enough to add it to my own collection. The book is well written and is easy to continue reading, just not my cup of tea.
As a classroom extension, I would invite my students to discuss how this girl may have felt with no family, no belongings or even a name. This would open an opportunity to talk about homeless, and shelters etc. I would also bring up how technology has increased from relying on herbs and spells to deliver children with the use of Midwife. (within reason for a young crowd). The students could talk about how the girl was treated by the midwife as far as living conditions and pay.
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LibraryThing member JenniferHauschildt
A homeless girl is chosen to be a midwife's helper. The midvife is very mean. She hits and talks badly to the girl. The girl learns a lot from watching the midwife deliver babies. The girl goes through a lot of hardships and adventures, but in the end she decides to stay on as the midwife's
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apprentice. The girl starts out as a nobody and ends up with a place in the world.

Personal Reaction -

It was hard to read about the mistreatment of the girl, but overall it was a good book. I like how the author made gradual changes in how the girl looked and how she viewed herself. It was nice to watch her transpire into a lovely young woman with more confidence.

Classroom Extensions

- This book might not be appropriate for the classroom. There are some topics like spells and childbirth that might conflict with families personal beliefs.

-If I did use it in the classroom, I would use it as a small group book for the more mature or advanced children in my class.
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LibraryThing member chardesty06
This book tells the story of a girl who was not wanted by her family and lives her life living as an outcast in society. A midwife takes her in and gives her a place to sleep, but treats "Beetle" with no dignity or respect. Beetle becomes her apprentice and is thro
LibraryThing member AliciaMJ
This story is about a girl with no family and no name. On a cold night she finds a warm dung heap to sleep in. She wakes up to a woman calling her dung beetle, and telling her to leave. She tells the woman she will work for food. The woman agrees and puts the girl to work. Beetle works for the
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midwife for months, mixing herbs, doing chores, and watching through windows. One day the midwife sends Beetle to a fair to get supplies for the next season. As Beetle is bargaining with a merchant someone calls her Alyce. She really likes the name Alyce. When she gets back from the fair the midwife is called away for two births. The first birth does not go well. The baby will not leave the mother. The midwife knows that the payment for this birth is beans and eggs. She also knows the other birthing family will pay her in silver. So the greedy midwife decides to leave Alyce to collect the payment, while she goes to the other birth. Alyce is scared and wants to leave but she cannot let the mother and baby die. So Alyce tries everything she learned and some of her own tricks. Finally the baby comes and the mother and father are grateful that Alyce was there. There came a day, when the sister of the woman that Alyce helped was going to have her baby. She wanted Alyce to be her midwife. Alyce was over joyed, and tried to help the woman deliver the baby. But Alyce could not do it, and she sent for the midwifes help. The midwife came and pulled the baby out with skill. Alyce felt horrible and worthless. She ran away to an inn and became the inn girl. Working for food and a place to stay, she learned how to read. The teachers name was Mr. Reece, he was writing a book. One day Mr. Reece interviewed the midwife from the village Alyce came from. The midwife talked about her special herbs and the techniques she uses in her work. She also talked about the apprentice she once had that just gave up and was too weak to do the job. Alyce feels that the midwife is right, that she is too weak. So when a man comes into the inn yelling that something is eating his wife from the inside. Alyce, knows that the woman is with child but is too scared to help. However Alyce cares too much for the life of the mother and baby. She starts doing everything she learned from the midwife. And she delivers the baby and saves the mothers life. Alyce realizes that she is not an inn girl she is a midwifes apprentice. So Alyce goes and learns to become a midwife.

I really enjoyed this story. I liked reading about how midwifes lived and the remedies they used. At the end of this book there is about five pages of facts about midwifes.

With this book the class could discuss the differences about midwifes and doctors. What the class thinks about midwifes. And the teacher could go over the stages of birth.
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LibraryThing member fnborries
This book is about a young girl who has nothing, she does not even know her own name. The book goes through her finding out who she is with the help of a midwife. She finds a name and learns the way of a midwife. She then feels dissappointed and ashamed of herself again when something goes wrong.
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Througout the book she becomes friends with a young boy and helps him through the tough times.
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LibraryThing member smmote
A young girl that is not sure of her actual name, age, or background is found one evening in a farmer's dung heap. The village midwife, Jane, finds "Brat" and takes her to shelter and warmth and feeds her enough food to get by. "Brat" becomes the midwife's apprentice and does anything Jane asks of
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her. "Brat" encounters many new animals and friends along the way and is educated by listening to everyone around her. She is a girl of few words and is not noticed for her knowledge. Jane accepts "Brat's" offer to work for her and willing to do anything for food, so she is brought in to begin her career as the midwife's apprentice, which includes changing her name to Alyce and naming her new cat, Puss.
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LibraryThing member bluesalamanders
I really enjoy this and the other book by Cushman that I have, Catherine, Called Birdy. They are fascinating looks at what it might have been like for those not in power during medieval times.
LibraryThing member jmdavenport
The Midwife's Apprentice tells a story about Alyce who is an aspiring midwife. It explains Alyce's journey to becoming a successful, matured adult. She encounters struggles but overcomes them. In the end, Alyce realizes that she is right where she needs to be!
LibraryThing member SHeineke
At 12 or 13, Alyce, ass she later called herself, did not remember any family and had no clue when her birthday was. She lived in abject poverty barely surviving - on her own, wandering and begging until a midwife took her in to work for her. this is a stoy of courage and of overcoming adversity to
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find oneself and a place in life.
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