Historical Fiction: The Midwife’s Apprentice

1 Aug



Cushman, Karen. The midwife’s apprentice . New York: Clarion Books, 1995.

The story begins in medievalEnglandwhere a young abandoned homeless girl goes looking for warmth in the night.  Under a compost heap of trash and rotted hay she finds a warm place to lie for the night.  This girl has no name; the only name that she has ever known was “Brat!”  Soon enough Jane the midwife finds the girl hiding in her dung heap.  Jane puts the girl to work in her home and before long she becomes known as (dung) Beetle, the midwife’s apprentice.  Beetle helps the midwife with gathering and preparing herbs and medicines, and watches outside windows as Jane helps deliver babies all over town.  Beetle watches and learns from the midwife and one day is even mistaken as a real girl named “Alyce.”  Beetle decides to take the name for her own.  Alyce soon gets a reputation for being a good midwife’s apprentice but after failing to deliver a baby without Jane’s help she flees the town in disappointment and shame.  Alyce starts a new life and continues to live in silence and shame as a failed midwife’s apprentice.  That is until she finds herself delivering an unexpected baby all on her own.  Alyce learns that perseverance and determination were the only things holding her back from being a good midwife.  A young girl that has never known love discovers the strength and beauty within herself.  Alyce returns to town, this time with the confidence to be a midwife’s apprentice.


Karen Cushman relates universal feelings of shame, disappointment, growth and determination in this quick historical novel.  We follow a young girl on her journey from homeless, nameless, to “Brat, Beetle,” and eventually as “Alyce.”  Alyce’s strength and character develop slowly throughout the book, a great pull for any young reader.

Cushman creates the medieval setting with descriptions of how to care for dirt floors, dialect between the characters and medieval recipes for assisting with labor.


“…cobwebs for stanching blood, bryony and wolly nightshade to cleanse and comfort the mother, goat’s beard to bring forth her milk, and sage tea for too much, jasper as a charm against misfortune, and mistletoe and elder leaves against witches.”

The author concludes the book with a description of midwifery in medievalEngland.  Many of the spells and recipes used by Alyce and Jane the midwife were often used medicines for assisting with labor.


This book is recommended for grades 6-9, students should have a general idea of medieval times and midwifery to be able to thoroughly understand the context of the book.


“With simplicity, wit, and humor, Cushman presents another tale of medieval England. Here readers follow the satisfying, literal and figurative journey of a homeless, nameless child called Brat. . . . Earthy humor, the foibles of humans both high and low, and a fascinating mix of superstition and genuinely helpful herbal remedies attached to childbirth make this a truly delightful introduction to a world seldom seen in children’s literature.”– School Library Journal, Starred


“This novel is about a strong, young woman in medieval Englandwho finds her own way home. . . . Kids will be caught up in this short, fast-paced narrative about a hero who discovers that she’s not ugly or stupid or alone.”Booklist, ALA, Starred Review


A fascinating view of a far distant time.’ — The Horn Book, starred review






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