Content Note: Discussions of abuse and spoilers for The Midwife’s Apprentice.
Usually, I don’t do book reviews here (I think I may have written two before) but I figured I would spice things up today before returning to my usual content! Today I will be reviewing the children’s book The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman.
The Book’s Summary:
The Midwife’s Apprentice is a story about a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl living in medieval England. (The narration never specified her age as the girl doesn’t even know how old she is.) At first, the girl is nameless, only going by “Brat.” We are introduced to Brat as she crawls into a dung pile to sleep. Brat is a homeless, wandering orphan trying to get out of the cold. She also goes into the dung pile to hide from some boys who are tormenting her.
The boys do find her and start tormenting Brat, giving her a new name: Beetle. (As in dung beetle.) They are chased away by a woman who asks Beetle if she is dead because if she is dead the woman has to get the bailiff to take her body away. Beetle opens her eyes, revealing that she is in fact alive. This woman is Jane Sharp and she is the local midwife. She tells Beetle she’ll feed her and give her a place to sleep if she works for her. Hungry, not wanting to sleep in the dung pile anymore or venture off to another village to beg, Beetle accepts and becomes Jane’s servant and eventual apprentice.
However, Jane is not doing this out of the kindness of her heart. Jane is a cruel woman who not only torments Beetle but her patients as well. She is verbally, physically, and emotionally abusive to pretty much everyone she interacts with. Jane also refuses to go to women who can’t pay her hefty fees, often causing women to have to give birth with no help, other than their local neighbors. While Jane isn’t a professionally trained midwife as it’s the Middle Ages and the knowledge was passed down from woman to woman, she does know her stuff. What I’m saying is, women died in childbirth all the time and if something goes horribly wrong you want someone there who knows what they are doing even if they are a horrible human being. To make matters worse for her patients, Jane is the only midwife in the area and if you want a lesser chance of dying in childbirth, unfortunately, you have to put up with her.
Jane looks down upon Beetle and treats her horribly. She thinks Beetle is an idiot and abuses her physically and emotionally at every chance she gets. However, Beetle is not as stupid as Jane and the others in the village make her out to be. The more work she does for Jane, the more and more she learns. Soon enough Beetle has memorized Jane’s medical recipes and can make them on her own. This gives Beetle a sense of freedom.
Over the course of the book, Beetle starts to become her own person. She makes friends, gets some revenge on people who have wronged her, rescues a few boys, and overall has quite a few adventures. Eventually, she decides to rename herself Alyce. At first, no one will call her Alyce, but as time goes by more and more people do. Soon enough Alyce is loved and even more respected than Jane due to the kindness she gives patients that have been abandoned by the older midwife. (After all, Jane has absolutely no qualms with leaving patients and their babies to die if someone richer has just gone into labor.)
Despite the respect Alyce gets, she is still young and does not know everything. After a patient’s baby gets stuck, Alyce panics and Jane has to come to the rescue. Alyce, ashamed that she could not help, gives up midwifery. She runs away from the village and starts working as a servant at a somewhat far off inn.
There at the inn, Alyce learns more practical life skills and even learns to read and write thanks to the lessons of a traveling scholar. At one point Jane visits the inn but doesn’t see her. While Jane is telling the scholar about midwifery, Alyce overhears her complaining about her. Jane is annoyed with Alyce and basically says she needs an apprentice who won’t give up at the slightest hint of trouble. Babies don’t stop being born just because the midwife has a personal crisis. (Which, as much as I do not like Jane, is true.)
Time goes on and Alyce still works at the inn as a servant. She has absolutely no intention of returning to midwifery but then something happens: a woman has come to the inn who is in labor! At first, no one in the woman’s traveling party can believe it because 1) no one knew she was pregnant (least of all herself!) and 2) she and her husband thought they were barren. But after the innkeeper feels the woman’s stomach she tells them that she is most certainly pregnant and the pain is not from a stomach worm. The husband is totally in denial and basically says “No, she’s not pregnant. I mean, yeah, my wife has gotten really fat lately but that’s because she won’t stop eating. I’m not a father!!!”
But the woman is pregnant and she’s in labor and the baby is coming now.
At first, the innkeeper helps her but soon enough she’s doesn’t know what to do. All this time Alyce has been watching but not saying anything. Alyce has been too terrified of screwing up again to help. But eventually, she knows she has to. Alyce comes to the rescue and the baby is safely delivered. It is only when Alyce is able to help the woman does she realize that she is meant to be a midwife. She returns to Jane, who won’t have her at first. But Alyce remembers what Jane said previously: she needs someone who doesn’t give up. Alyce pesters Jane for a while and eventually, she is let back in to continue her training. This is where the book ends.
The Book Review:
I enjoyed The Midwife’s Apprentice. I thought it was a good book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads. It’s a pretty short book so I finished it within a day. (It’s a children’s book so of course, it’s short.) The story is well written and Alyce is a likable character. Admittedly, she’s a bit bland at first. At the start of the book, she’s extremely timid and not very interesting. However, her shyness is due to the fact she has spent the entirety of her life (or at least the life she remembers) in a world that neglects and abuses her. After all, she has no family, no money, no home, and no name. So it’s extremely satisfying to watch her become her own person and gain the confidence that comes with realizing she is capable, worthy of love, respect, and she’s not just a burden like the world has told her her entire life.
And Alyce finally choosing her own name is something I can really relate to. The moment she does so was extremely touching.
Karen Cushman does a fantastic job of making Jane extremely unlikable. I absolutely hated Jane. (However, that is the point of her character.) Jane is abusive to everyone around her and to add to how horrible of a person she is, she’s also having an affair with a man who has a wife and thirteen children! Her character also shows that even the people you are supposed to trust won’t always (if ever!) have your best interests in mind. It’s an important lesson for kids to learn that sometimes you can’t trust your doctors, especially when it comes to childbirth. There are so many cases out there of doctors and midwives refusing to listen to or flat out abusing their laboring patients (especially women of color). While The Midwife’s Apprentice takes place in medieval England, the fact that patient abuse is still extremely dominant today is important for kids to learn about so they can protect themselves in the future.
In other reviews I’ve read of The Midwife’s Apprentice, people have a lot of issues with Alyce returning to her abuser at the end of the book. Her return is definitely problematic, but I understand why she did so. Jane is the only person Alyce knows who has the knowledge she needs to be a proper midwife. While her return is not ideal at all the ending does have a lot of hope to it. It’s stated throughout the book that Jane is terrified of another midwife taking her business and at one point Alyce does take her patients. Hopefully, once Alyce has learned all she can from Jane she will be able to leave for good and take care of the village’s parents instead of Jane.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Midwife’s Apprentice. I think it’s an excellent book and I recommend it for children and adults alike.