If you can stuff sunshine and flowers and chestnuts in a book, you basically get The Midwife’s Apprentice. Reading this book feels like watching a flower bloom – it brings to mind of a beauty in the making. The Midwife’s Apprentice is an effortlessly charming tale of a young, impoverished girl who slowly gains a sense of self-worth with the help of a cat, a cow, and a midwife, and Cushman has crafted a lovely story backed by plenty of research on medieval midwifery.
Brat, a twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl with no real name or home, is picked up by Jane the Midwife and rechristened “Beetle” for being found sleeping in the dung heap. Beetle works as Jane’s apprentice in return for a roof over her head and food in her stomach, and she eventually learns bits and pieces of midwifery herself. With growing self-esteem and confidence, Beetle takes to calling herself “Alyce” and is giddy when the villagers look to her for help – but when she makes a mistake, she realizes that she still has much to learn.
Beetle is an endearing protagonist who works hard and takes every chance to learn and grow. She really develops and flourishes under each new situation, and it’s fun to watch her take on new names and new roles. Beetle gained my sympathy early on because of her concern for others despite her poverty; for example, when she finds an injured cat, Beetle takes care of him the best she knew how:
If Beetle had known any prayers, she might have prayed for the cat. If she had known about soft sweet songs, she might have sung to him. If she had known of gentle words and cooing, she would have spoken gently to him. But all she knew was cursing: “Damn you, cat, breathe and live, you flea-bitten sod, or I’ll kill you myself.”
Jane becomes an important person in Beetle’s life, and the midwife is first described as “greedy” for taking in Beetle. She is consistently shown in a negative way due to her rough treatment of Beetle, but I can tell that she’s being strict rather than mean. Jane’s actions and words have a big impact on Beetle’s morale and skill set, and she becomes more likable throughout the story.
The other characters are also delightful to watch; there’s something about medieval characters that make them full of life and energy, and Cushman created meaningful and amusing vignettes within The Midwife’s Apprentice that brought out the best (and worst, for antagonists) of these supporting characters.
There’s not much depth in terms of plot and strong emotions since this is still, in essence, a middle-grade book… but The Midwife’s Apprentice is lovely in its simplicity. The message that Cushman wants to present is clear by the end of the story, and her notes on the history of midwifery at the end are insightful and interesting.
The Midwife’s Apprentice is full of strong character development and entertaining accounts of a young girl in her struggle to change from a nobody to a somebody. Cushman captured the lightheartedness of that transition as well as a much-needed lesson in confidence. If you’re up for a quick, lighthearted, and meaningful read, give The Midwife’s Apprentice a try!