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The Midwife's Apprentice
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The Midwife's Apprentice

3.7 98
by Karen Cushman, Bryan Leister (Illustrator)

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On a frosty morning sometime in the fourteenth century, in a village somewhere in England, a gift known only as Brat was sleeping in a dung heap.

"You, girl. Are you alive or dead?"

When she opened her eyes, she saw an important-looking woman with a sharp glance and a sharp nose and a wimple starched into sharp pleats. This woman was Jane the Midwife, and she


On a frosty morning sometime in the fourteenth century, in a village somewhere in England, a gift known only as Brat was sleeping in a dung heap.

"You, girl. Are you alive or dead?"

When she opened her eyes, she saw an important-looking woman with a sharp glance and a sharp nose and a wimple starched into sharp pleats. This woman was Jane the Midwife, and she needed a helper...

The Midwife's Apprentice by the author of Catherine, Called Birdy

Thus begins the funny, wise, compassionate story of the homeless waif who became the midwife's apprentice — a person with a name and a place in the world.

This Newbery Honor-winning story, complete with an epilogue read by the author, and an extensive author interview, conducted by a young "fan," will usher young listeners into the middle of the fourteenth century.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Having focused on a well-born young heroine in her Newbery Honor debut novel, Catherine, Called Birdy, Cushman returns to a similar medieval English setting, this time to imagine how the other half lived. The strengths of this new, relatively brief novel match those of its predecessor: Cushman has an almost unrivaled ability to build atmosphere, and her evocation of a medieval village, if not scholarly in its authenticity, is supremely colorful and pungent. The protagonist here first appears asleep in a heap of dung; the ``rotting and moiling'' of the refuse give forth heat enough to compensate for the stench. Homeless and nameless, she can remember no time when she did not wander from village to village. She is rescued from the dung heap by a sharp-tongued local midwife, who feeds her in exchange for work. Gradually the girl forges an identity for herself and learns some timeless truths. Some of the characterizations lack consistency (particularly that of the midwife), the plot depends on a few too many conveniences and the development of the themes seems hurried-but no matter. The force of the ambience produces more than enough momentum to propel the reader from start to finish in a single happy sitting. Ages 12-up. (Mar.)
School Library Journal
Gr 6-9-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, who might be 12 or 13-no one really knows. She wandered about in her early years, seeking food and any kind of refuge and, like many outsiders, gained a certain kind of wisdom about people and their ways. Still, life held little purpose beyond survival-until she meets the sharp-nosed, irritable local midwife, which is where this story begins. Jane takes her in, re-names her Beetle, and thinks of her as free labor and no competition. Always practical but initially timid, the girl expands in courage and self-awareness, acquiring a cat as a companion, naming herself Alyce, and gaining experience in the ways of midwifery. From the breathless delight of helping a boy to deliver twin calves, to the despair of failure during a difficult birth, to the triumph of a successful delivery, Alyce struggles to understand how she can allow herself to fail and yet have the determination to reach for her own place in the world. Alyce wins. Characters are sketched briefly but with telling, witty detail, and the very scents and sounds of the land and people's occupations fill each page as Alyce comes of age and heart. 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.-Sara Miller, Rye County Day School, NY
From the Publisher
"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 England who 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

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
A Trophy Bk.
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.12(w) x 7.62(h) x 0.25(d)
Age Range:
12 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Dung Heap

When Animal droppings and garbage and spoiled straw are piled up in a great heap, the rotting and moiling give forth heat. Usually no one gets dose enough to notice because of the stench. But the girl noticed and, on that frosty night, burrowed deep into the warm, rotting muck, heedless of the smell. In any event, the dung heap probably smelled little worse than everything else in her life—the food scraps scavenged from kitchen yards, the stables and sties she slept in when she could, and her own unwashed, unnourished, unloved, and unlovely body.

How old she was was hard to say. She was small and pale, with the frightened air of an illused child, but her scrawny, underfed body did give off a hint of woman, so perhaps she was twelve or thirteen. No one knew for sure, least of all the girl herself, who knew no home and no mother and no name but Brat and never had. Someone, she assumed, must have borne her and cared for her lest she toddle into the pond and changed her diapers when they reeked, but as long as she could remember, Brat had lived on her own by what means she could—stealing an onion here or helping with the harvest there in exchange for a night on the stable floor. She took what she could from a village and moved on before the villagers, with their rakes and sticks, drove her away. Snug cottages and warm bread and mothers who hugged their babes were beyond her imagining, but dearly would she have loved to eat a turnip without the mud of the field still on it or sleep in a barn fragrant with new hay and not the rank smell of pigs who fart when they eat too much.

Tonight she settled for the warm rotting of adung heap, where she dreamed of nothing, for she hoped for nothing and expected nothing. It was as cold and dark inside her as out in the frosty night.

Morning brought rain to ease the cold, and the kick of a boot in Brat's belly. Hunger. Brat hated the hunger most. Or was it the cold? She knew only that hunger and cold cursed her life and kept her waking and walking and working for no other reason than to stop the pain.

"Dung beetle! Dung beetle! Smelly old dung beetle sleeping in the dung."

Boys. In every village there were boys, teasing, taunting, pinching, kicking. Always they were the scrawniest or the ugliest or the dirtiest or the stupidest boys, picked on by everyone else, with no one left uglier or stupider than they but her. And so they taunted and tormented her. In every village. Always. She closed her eyes.

"Hey, boys, have off. You're mucking up the path and my new Spanish leather shoes. Away!

"And you, girl. Are you alive or dead?"

Brat opened one eye. A woman was there, a woman neither old nor young but in between. Neither fat nor thin but in between. An important looking woman, with a sharp nose and a sharp glance and a wimple starched into sharp pleats.

"Good," said the woman. "You're not dead. No need to call the bailiff to cart you off. Now out of that heap and away."

The fierce pain in her stomach made Brat bold. "Please, may I have some'ut to eat first?"

"No beggars in this village. Away."

"Please, mistress, a little to eat?"

"Those who don't work don't eat."

Brat opened her other eye to show her eagerness and energy. "I will work, mistress. I am stronger and smarter than I seem."

"Smart enough to use the heat from the dung heap, I see. What can you do?"

"Anything, mistress. And I don't eat much."

The woman's sharp nose smelled hunger, which she could use to her own greedy purpose. "Get up, then, girl. You do put me in mind of a dung beetle burrowing in that heap. Get up, Beetle, and I may yet find something for you to do."

So Brat, newly christened Beetle, got up, and the sharp lady found some work for her to do and rewarded her with dry bread and half a mug of sour ale, which tasted so sweet to the girl that she slept in the dung heap another night, hoping for more work and more bread on the morrow. And there was more work, sweeping the lady's dirt floor and washing her linen in the stream and carrying her bundles to those cottages where a new baby was expected, for the sharp lady was a midwife. Beetle soon acquired a new name, the midwife's apprentice, and a place to sleep that smelled much better than the dung heap, though it was much less warm.


Beetle liked to watch the cat stretching in the sunshine, combing his belly with his tongue, chewing the burrs and stubble out from between his toes. She never dared get dose, for she was afraid, but even from a distance could tell that there was a gleaming patch of white in the dusty orange of his fur, right below his chin; that one ear had a great bite taken out of it; and that his whiskers were cockeyed, going up on one side and down on the other, giving him a frisky, cheerful look.

Sometimes she left bits of her bread or cheese near the fence post by the river where she first saw him, but not very often, for the midwife was generous only with the work she gave Beetle and stingy with rewards, and the girl was never overfed.

Once she found a nest of baby mice who had frozen in, the cold, and she left them by the fence post for the cat. But her heart ached when she thought of the tiny hairless bodies in those strong jaws, so she buried them deep in the dung heap and left the cat to do his own hunting.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"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 England who 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

Meet the Author

Karen Cushman's acclaimed historical novels include Catherine, Called Birdy, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Midwife's Apprentice, which received the Newbery Medal. She lives on Vashon Island in Washington State. Her website is www.karencushman.com and follow her on Twitter @Cushmanbooks.

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The Midwife's Apprentice 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 98 reviews.
jamin0610 More than 1 year ago
Book title and author: The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman Title of review: Could’ve Been Better Number of stars (1 to 5): 4 and ½ Introduction This book was about a poor girl without a name, a home, and without love. She walks from town to town working for barely to no food and a night in the stables. She found herself in a new little town where she crawled into a dung heap for warmth. The village boys then decided her name was beetle because of how she burrowed into the dung heap. Jane Sharp, the midwife of the town, found beetle in the heap and commanded the boys to stop, then gave beetle a job as her apprentice, beetle was now the midwife’s apprentice. I loved this book due to its drama and surprises. Description and summary of main points This book was very well written and the author really knows how to put herself into another’s shoes and tell a very vibrant yet extravagant story. Alice was a poor girl, without a penny to her name, worked her way up until she could actually help as a midwife. She was a very emotional girl, who risked her own life to save a cat after the village boys tried to drown it in a bag with an eel. She saved the cat and then ended up saving one of the boys after he fell in and was left by his so called ‘friends’. This was merely the start of her amazing adventure through life and dealing with trouble, sinful villagers, a promiscuous baker, and her new friend Purr. Evaluation I loved this book because of how the vivid details all melted in with the action and drama that happened around every corner. There was always something going on and it was well described and detailed to the point of reality. The way the words would drag you into the book and the way the author kept the medieval time scale at hand throughout the entire book. The author never strayed too far into our time and was very equal with her writing. The way she described Alice when she found poor Edward laying in the stables nearly frozen to death, and then Alice’s heroic and bravery as she ran from the midwife in failure and nearly died sleeping in a rock crevice, was very well put. Conclusion In conclusion, this book was very well thought out and the way the author wrote the words really put the images into your mind, and made you feel as if you were standing in that little town beside the woods and feel the pain, grief, and happiness that flood through the pages like water from a broken damn gate. The author is very talented at creating vibrant images and a broad story about a little girl that has tried to make her life better and work very hard to achieve her goals. She has made many friends and enemies on her long journey from a poor girl to a well mannered woman. Your final review This book was very good in my opinion, and is a very good use of time and will open your eyes to many new genres and words. The vocabulary in this book is amazing and really sets the time and era of the book. The drama and action will keep you on the edge of your seat and will keep you turning the pages. The surprising twists and turns in the book will always keep your interest. Beetle’s journey through life will surprise you many times and how cunning and smart she is will surprise you all throughout the story. Good readings!!!!!!! Good readings!!!!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Midwifes Apprentice
Karen Cushman
Clarion Books
Realistic Fiction

The ever changing experience of The Midwife's Apprentice is a fun learning experience written by Karen Cushman. A poor girl who was known to the town as Dung Beetle slept in a dung heap in Jane Sharp's barn, eating nothing but what they threw out. Everyone teased her and called her filthy names and cursed at her until one day she worked for Jane Sharp, as the midwife's apprentice. But that wasn't much better, Jane Sharp didn't treat her well either. She ordered her around and made her do all the things that she was too lazy to do herself. Then Dung Beetle found her first friend, Purr the cat, he meant a lot to Dung Beetle. Soon after Dung Beetle was feeling delight in herself, so she changed her name to Alice and spread it through the village hoping that people would then treat her well. After that they did treat her better but the midwife was jealous. Alice was happy.

Alice, the primary character, changes frequently throughout the story. She is a brave and loving girl who does everything her midwife, Jane Sharp, tells her to do. Jane Sharp is a completely static character, she is also the antagonist. She is very mean and bossy towards Alice and doesn't appreciate anything or anyone. Alice's best friend Purr (the cat) is very loyal to her and follows her everywhere, Purr even sneaks bread and cheese for her sometimes. Edward, Logan, and the hotel manager are all supporting characters to Alice, giving her hopes and ideas.

The Midwife's Apprentice is a fun filled story with humor. This is an action filled book that makes the reader want to keep reading. I liked this book because it made me think and it's really a good book with character for children. When I read The Midwife's Apprentice it took me back to a time, a time when there were no doctors to deliver a baby, give medicine, and tell someone if they were sick. It really made me think and learn what people had to go through. Read The Midwife's Apprentice and see what Alice went through.
hockey22 More than 1 year ago
This book is so good it took me only a day to read! I was hooked on it and I couldn't put it down. I can't imagine living back then and having no home. It's an awesome book for people who like historical fiction.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm reading this in class and we are on chapter 11 and already love it!grest book for kids ages11 and up! Totally recommened it! (:
mila12 More than 1 year ago
What would you do if you thought you were never good enough? That's the way Alyce felt in Karen Cushman's, The Midwife's Apprentice. The genre is historical fiction. This book is about an orphan girl named Beetle. She eventually changed her name to Alyce. Jane, the midwife, found Alyce in a dung heap and offered her food for work. Alyce wanted to be a midwife so she was working as an apprentice for Jane. Jane was not a very nice person. She made Alyce feel like she wasn't good enough. Will Alyce become a midwife? You will have to read the book to find out. I liked the whole book. The best part was when Alyce found Jane kissing the baker. The baker was married with 13 children! I also liked the ending, but you will have to read that part yourself. I would recommend this book for kids learning about the medieval period. I would recommend it to mostly girls 11-15 years old. It has some weird language, so if you have trouble with that, this is not the book for you.
IamHisfollower More than 1 year ago
It was great but a little too short for me, but a GREAT ending...
HomeSchoolBookReview More than 1 year ago
In medieval England, an abandoned and abused girl, about twelve or thirteen, known as Brat wanders from village to village. At one place she sleeps in a dung heap for warmth. The local midwife, Jane Sharp, finds her, calls her Dung Beetle, and, recognizing the potential for free labor, allows Beetle to work for her as an apprentice in exchange for food and lodging. Not liking her previous names, the girl begins to call herself Alyce when she is mistaken for another girl named Alyce while attending the St. Swithin’s Day Fair at Gobnet-Under-Green. However, a crisis develops when Jane is out and Alyce is called upon to help a woman giving birth, and Alyce feels that she has failed so she runs away. Where can she go? What can she do? What will happen to her? From a positive standpoint, Alyce is a strong and surprisingly compassionate character who learns not only all about the art of midwifery, but also about herself, human nature, and the resilience of the human heart. In addition, the book is historically true to the time and gives a lot of good information about herbal medicines. However, there are some pretty big negatives. As to language, there is a statement that pigs fart, and Alyce said that she near “pi**ed” herself. Furthermore, the “d” word is used once, and expressions such as “by God’s whiskers” are found. There are copious references to drinking ale, wine, “brewed [i.e. hard] cider,” and beer, and a group of boys—not men but boys--is pictured as being drunk. Given the problem of alcoholism, especially among youth, today, do we really want children reading about things like this, even if they are “historically accurate”? Worse yet are the hints of immorality. Alyce discovers the midwife having an adulterous affair with the Baker, who has a wife and thirteen children. Also, a couple is caught in the act of fornication. While there is no lewd detail, it is clear that the young people were doing more than just smooching in the hayloft. “The boy gathered his breeches and flung himself out the barn window.” This is hardly wholesome reading. And other expressions of latent sexuality are mentioned. There could have been a good story here with some beneficial lessons, but it is marred by the objectionable elements. Therefore, because of the mature content, the book can be recommended only for older readers. One source gives the age range as 9-12 years, where another says 11 and up. I would say no younger than 13+. Cushman won a 1995 Newbery Honor Award for Catherine, Called Birdy and the 1996 Newbery Medal for The Midwife's Apprentice. That doesn’t surprise me because it seems the more “adults only” content a children’s book has, the more likely it is to win a Newbery prize nowadays.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read it in school for a reading group and we stoped halfway. I was really angry because i was hooked on the book. So I got it on my nook and read the whole thing it ended well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was gross and good!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book was very well written; the style of a collection of short stories is always enjoyable to read. It is also excellent historical fiction, and for a fairly untrained writer, I was surprised at how well the book turned out. it is a jewel, and i say the reading range is about 12+. I suggest everyone should read this.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I personally read this in the seventh grade about three months before my twelth birthday and I completely adored it, I am now eighteen and I can still remember almost the entire book. Nothing in this book was beyond what children hear and see everyday in school. If you are worried about the content read it BEFORE your child does.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Midwife's Apprentice, the story of a young poverty stricken girl with no family finding her place in life. It is set in medieval times. This well written story describes well the hardships, occupations, and costs of living of the time. It is told through the eyes of a young girl who begins with nothing and overcomes by answering the question we ultimately ask ourselves. This book is outstanding.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was ok but not great. It was good enough to keep me entertained, and into the book but not enough that I would read it over and over again. I think this book deserves 3 stars because it was fine, but it had flaws. I would recomend this book to people that can read through a whole book and not just stop in the middle and never start reading it again. And people that are easly entertained by things.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book is really good because it shows no matter what anyone says you can make somthing of yourslef.this book just says you can do anything and that is why i like it so much.
Guest More than 1 year ago

Karen Cushman writes a novel based on the Middle Ages and how The Midwife¿s Apprentice must find her place in the world.

She is found in the dung pile outside of town, the others shun her, but the midwife sees a slight intelligence. Naming her Dung Beetle the midwife takes her in as free labor giving her meager food and bed. Beetle finds herself in hard situations throughout the book; this includes leaning special medicines from the midwife to the actual conception of children. Later Beetle discovers her beauty and names herself Alyce; this improvement set the midwife off into harsh remarks about Alyce. She runs to get away from the pain and suffering.

Alyce finds a new life at an inn. No one knows her, so she has no fear of being branded as a failure by others. Then a woman comes to the inn; she is suffering from great stomach pains. The doctor said it was just her bowls but Alyce, from knowledge taught by the midwife, knows that a baby is coming. She succeeds in brining a child into the world. This sets Alyce¿s mind back to the past, should she go back, and not give up, to be a midwife? This is a story of finding true self and having no fear of something new. Every person who reads this book will have a new aspect of what they can do through their willpower and God¿s hand.

Guest More than 1 year ago
All I can say about Karen Cushman is that when it comes to writing about the happenings and times of the Medieval period, her writing is simply appalling to me. I am intrigued by books that tell of the Middle Ages, they simply facinate me. And this book practically pulled me in, enveloped me into this time period. When it comes to writing about such a time, Cushman is simply remarkable and I can't put into words how much I enjoy her books!
Guest More than 1 year ago
It was a great book I highly recommend it!!!! I loved the book!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
the midwifes apprentice is a very interesting book. i dont recomend it for people who like action or fast going books. if you are goin to do it for a school prject the you shouldnt use it because it has no dates in it and all i no is that it took place in the middle ages.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Midwife's Apprentice is an outstanding story. It's so well written that it's almost like I know the characters as friends. When I finshed the book it was almost like losing a best friend. Karen Cushman is one of my favorite authors, and writes the most outstanding books.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was the best book young reader book i have ever read.....normally i stay away from that section...brcause it is all unrealistic and too mushy gushy teenage love for my taste.....this was nothing like that at all!!! I recommend this for every age group!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think the this book is a very good book.It is about an orphan girl that doe not have a name, parents, or somewhere to live and sleep.The only names she has is brat, beetle and alyce.On cold days she sleeps in the dung heap. One day she is waked up by a midwife named Jane Sharp, who keeps beetle a the midwife's Apprentice. One day she fails at a task so she runs away. Then she survives out side.At the end of the book she decides to be a Midwife. I think that the book was organized and written wonderfully.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This Book is fun, adventures, and...Great!!!
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