Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Midwife's Apprentice, by Karen Cushman

In this story, a young girl named Alyce comes to the realization that she is called to be an apprentice midwife. She is strong, clever, courageous, and a hard worker. The book describes her adventures from a few short years in a small village in England. Here she deals with a cantankerous old midwife, mocking village boys, and villagers who rarely show any real affection for the young girl. But, despite the mistakes, discouragements, and frustrations, Alyce and her cat, Purr, finally find a home, and a challenge for the rest of their life.

The story begins in a warm dung heap. A girl called Brat has found it a warm place to sleep, but is kicked away by village boys and Jane Sharp, the Midwife. She begins work for Jane Sharp, keeping the house clean, taking care of their few animals, and preparing herbs and such for when needed. But Jane Sharp refuses to let Alyce learn anything about the trade, for fear of competition. Alyce figures this out, and begins to secretly watch and learn what she could. Then, as a poor woman struggles to give birth, Jane gives up on her, and leaves to attend the birth of a rich woman. For Jane was cold and had little heart for those in need. Poor Alyce helps to birth the baby through kindness and gentleness. Later on, however, when a woman calls on Alyce and refuses to have the Midwife, Alyce fails to bring forth the baby, and Jane must do it instead. Alyce then runs away, and works at an inn, where she learns to read. There, she helps an old woman to give birth, after struggling with her own feelings of unworthiness and failure. At that moment, Alyce then knows that she wishes to return to the Midwife, to be a Midwife’s Apprentice.

The story takes place in a small village somewhere in England. The characters vary from Alyce herself, Purr the cat, Jane the grumpy Midwife, to Edward, a small boy that Alyce befriends. The narrator tells the story from the angle of a third person, but still with the language and thought-process of Alyce: as the main character gains greater vocabulary and confidence, the sentence structures also grow more complex. These sentences were filled with descriptions, figures of speech, using language to lead the reader from paragraph to paragraph with ease. The only difficulty in the writing style that I found was Cushman’s tendency to use very long sentences, filled with ‘ands’, which bogged the reader down with all the detail. Overall, however, the language is accurate to the main character, the reader’s comprehension level, and the English setting.

This story provides an insightful story of a young waif, who had a keen wit, a sharp eye, and enough persistence to keep trying. The moral of the story lends itself to a young age group, but long sentences, language, and information content seems to be a bit mature for young readers. So, while it is an easy chapter book, good for 3rd graders, I would probably give it to older readers, especially girls, of the 4th-6th grade age. I greatly enjoyed the story myself, and would certainly recommend it to a child that I thought of the proper maturity and reading qualifications.

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