Karen Cushman's writing is a specialty. Her degree in museum studies and the eleven years she spent teaching on the topic at John F. Kennedy University helped to fashion a writer who blends wit and humor with an unquestionable reliance on historical facts. Merge that with her natural giftedness for writing and you have a Newbery Award winning author. She heard people saying "No" to writing historical fiction, but thank goodness she did not heed their advice. Just like each of the tenacious heroines in her books she decided to pursue a passion, and at the age of fifty was determined to go for it. She spent three years writing her first book Catherine, Called Birdy which won a Newbery Honor. A year later, her second book, The Midwife's Apprentice won her the coveted and prestigious Newbery Award itself. According to the Houghton Mifflin Web site Cushman says this "Research in medieval English history and culture led to the writing of her first two novels. She says, 'I grew tired of hearing about kings, princes, generals, presidents. I wanted to know what ordinary life was like for ordinary young people in other times.'"
Catherine, Called Birdy, written in a journal format and The Midwife's Apprentice are both set in a medieval time period. Both feature young female protagonists who are coming of age, which I would consider the theme of the books. Catherine is from a wealthy home with parents who love her (although she detests her father. He is trying to pawn her off in marriage to the highest bidder.) Nameless orphan Brat, Beetle or Alyce of The Midwife's Apprentice lives hand to mouth and is homeless until the Jane Sharp, the local midwife, agrees to take her for her apprentice for her own greedy intentions. If Catherine and Alyce were to meet they would be fast friends and soul mates.
The books show the girls moving from girlhood to womanhood, embracing life as it comes with an inner strength that is admirable. Life is not perfect for anyone, it's how an individual tackles lifes hurdles that shows what they are made of and these books express that timeless truth. Catherine finally comes to terms with having to marry an old man, Shaggy Beard, thinking this "I decided I cannot escape my life but can only use my determination and courage to make it the best I can" (p 203.) And Alyce, when asked what she wants (from life) poignantly states "I know what I want. A full belly, a contented heart, and a place in this world" (p 81.) About midway through The Midwife's Apprentice Alyce runs away when she fails to deliver a baby, quits the apprenticeship and goes to work at an inn. But time and people that she meets help her to heal and grow. She becomes determined to succeed. The book ends with these words "Jane Sharp! It is I, Alyce, your apprentice. I have come back. And if you do not let me in, I will try again and again. I can do what you tell me and take what you give me, and I know how to try and risk and fail and try again and not give up. I will not go away." At the end of both books, the girls have matured and are ready to face life and whatever it brings them with fierce determination to suceed.
Both of the girls are pranksters, much to the glee of the readers. The understated humor in both books is beautifully crafted. Beetle, so named by Jane the midwife because she was found sleeping in a dung heap for its warmth, plays a trick on the townspeople. From her own observations of them Alyce (Brat or Beetle renames herself, showing a growing pride in who she is), knows their characters and exposes them to all in a clever trick. Carving blocks of wood into hoofs she makes imprints all over the village. The people fear it is the devil himself coming and visiting. The married baker gets caught in an affair with Jane, the miller is caught stealing, gluttonous acts are exposed etc., and all is blamed on the devil. When Alyce has had enough fun she throws the devils hooves into the river. Catherine is just as clever at trickery as Alyce. She greets her first father approved suitor ("orange tufts of hair sprouting form his head, his ears and his nose") with blackened teeth, a red nose and mouse bones in her hair. She smiles her gapping grin and wiggles her ears at him scaring him off never to see him again, to her delight and her fathers chagrin.
There are some subtle sexual innuendos that will be lost to the younger reader and the humor of the situations appreciated by the older. Cushman trusts the readers maturity level and doesn't write down or up to anyone. The simple fact-of-life situations written about are either grasped, or not, depending on the maturity level of the reader. In The Midwife's Apprentice all that needs to be said in one situation is that the pockmarked pig boy is caught with his breeches down in the barn with smith's lardys daughter and the reader knows what is going on (or doesn't know) with out explicit details. Catherine's brother is also found in a haystack with a maid.
Ian Elliot, in an article on Karen Cushman in Teaching PreK-8, had this to say about her work: "The long and short of it. A shelf of Karen Cushman books may be long in literature, but it won't take much space." No one can deny this. Her works are quality from front cover to back. She adeptly displays the many facets of human nature in her work and does it so well with so few words. I love her books. Cheers to the strong characters that she creates and shares with the rest of us. Well deserved cheers to Karen Cushman.