The Midwife’s Apprentice
Karen Cushman

The only name she ever knew was “Brat”, the only home she ever knew were the streets, and the only warmth she ever felt was when she was burrowed in a dung heap. And that’s where it all started…in the dung heap. Jane Sharp, the midwife of the village, found her buried in a pile of manure and decided to call her “Beetle”, like a dung beetle. Jane put her to work doing things nobody really liked to do, but Beetle didn’t mind. She might not like what she was doing, but she could work hard and she was given some food which was better than the typical none that she had and she wouldn’t have to sleep in a pile of manure if she worked hard. Soon though, the girl called Beetle discovers there can be more to life than just surviving. Read to find out how Beetle learns the meaning of hope, dreams, emotion, and disappointment.

This story takes place in the early fourteenth century in a small village. A young girl who has never known anything but living on the streets only knows her name to be “Brat.” One evening in an effort to avoid freezing, Brat climbs into a pile of dung in a barn. In the morning, she’s awakened not by dreams, but by the boys in the village who take great pleasure in making Brat’s life miserable. The midwife soon comes in and decides that if Brat will work hard, she will give her some food and a place to sleep. The midwife changes Brat’s name to “Beetle” because she found her in a heap of dung just like a dung beetle and because Brat had no other name, she let the name stick. Beetle went from day to day following and learning the ways of the midwife. She thought the midwife may be a witch because she knew all kinds of spells and all kinds of powers when it came to delivering babies. Beetle would go along with Jane to all her jobs and would watch from the window. Soon, Beetle found that she was learning all kinds of things. One day, as Beetle goes to the fair to buy some new supplies for Jane because Jane twisted her ankle, she’s mistaken for a girl named Alyce. While Jane is trading with one of the men at the fair, he tells her that she has curly hair. He gives her a comb and tells her to comb out her curls and soon she’ll have a lover. Beetle tucks that encouragement in her heart and works on her curls. She simply cannot believe she may have a little beauty after all and decides that maybe she deserves a real name, like Alyce. The boys in the village continue to pick on Beetle, who changes her name to Alyce, and one day one of the boys falls into the river. The others leave him so as not to be in trouble and Alyce reaches into the water and helps the boy, Will out. After this day, the boys are a little nicer to Alyce. Alyce and Will soon become friends and one day Alyce helps Will’s cow deliver twins. Day after day, Alyce learns new things. One day then, Alyce gets enough courage to help deliver a baby. She is then called on again to deliver another baby, but does not succeed. The midwife must be called and Alyce runs away because she does not know how to deal with her failure. She runs away and begins working at an inn. While at the inn, she realizes the vast difference she has made in so many people’s lives and the she truly was worth something in this world. In the end, Alyce goes back to the midwife’s house to truly make something of herself.

This book would be of great use for students learning about the middle ages. Taking place during the fourteenth century, much of the book is centered on the superstitions that were so prevalent during this time period. Students who are learning about this will be able to make connections with the superstitions that are such a major theme in the book. Students will also get a feel of what life was like for people living during this time. The transformation of the character may also serve as an encouragement to students who are also looking for their place in the world. They can examine how Alyce transforms her life and examine the changes that can be made in their own. - AM