I like to think that a Newbery award winning book is a sure bet for a good read. On a recent library visit I picked up the 1996 winner, The Midwife's Apprentice. There are many good things about this book: the setting is well researched and rendered; the themes of hope and of finding one's place in the world are important; the development of the heroine is satisfying. The way in which these themes are developed, however, is worrisome because of the images they will form in the minds of 9 to 12 year-old readers.
The midwife's apprentice has no name and no family. Early on in the story she is called "dung beetle" or Brat. She is generally looked down on, only slowly forging relationships in the course of the story. To emphasize the girl's status, Cushman has a scene in which the local boys bother her. They threaten to push her down-deep down-into the manure pile in which she once took refuge from the cold. It is scary enough to be chased by a gang of mean-spirited boys who threaten bodily harm, but since the boys have already taunted the girl about kisses, the scene takes on a feeling of unwanted sexual advances that is inappropriate for this age group.
The author's treatment of the midwife's affair with the baker is also troublesome. The reader soon knows that the midwife is not a virtuous woman; she is self-serving, greedy and dishonest. Must it also be pointed out that she is an adulteress? The scenes of the young girl, and, later, the townsfolk, coming upon the illicit lovers are, to my mind, not for 9 to12 year olds and not needed to develop the plot. It is not that they are graphic, it's just that they take the imagination where it doesn't need to go. Some of the childbirth scenes are bleak and crude. For example, there is one in which a young wife in the midst of labor looses her composure; she becomes abusive, cursing and throwing anything she can find at the midwife's apprentice. The poor young girl is terrified. Enter the midwife, who slaps the woman repeatedly to bring her to senses before delivering the baby. Given the reading level of the book, this seems unnecessary.
What Karen Cushman does well in this book is show the power of human kindness. It is through the conversation and actions of good people that the midwife's apprentice comes to see herself as something more than a "dung beetle", eventually viewing herself as a girl worthy of a name. Not only does she have a name before the story's end (Alyce), she also has friends, recognizes her talent, and chooses a profession: she has a place in the world. The development of the midwife's apprentice as a young woman is so satisfying that I am sorry the story is rendered in such a problematic fashion.
Margaret Hannon is a homeschooling mother. She and her husband live with five of their eight children in Bolton, MA.
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