I had the honor of hearing Cushman speak at the Shenandoah University Children’s Literature Conference this year on the day I was presenting a workshop. Her writing journey amazed me because she waited until age 50 to start writing because she realized until that point, she hadn’t had anything she needed to say.
The Midwife’s Apprentice is one of her most famous books. The story follows a “tween” (I guess we could call her that, though that term is a rather modern one) who finds herself homeless in medieval England. She sleeps in dung heaps to keep warm in the colder months, earning the nickname “Beetle” as a result. On a constant search for food and warmth, she finds herself in a variety of roles: the object of boys’ bullying, a midwife’s apprentice, a helper at a local eatery, and even an unexpected student of letters. Throughout the novel, her one true friend is her cat, Purr, who follows her around.
She is not an overtly strong protagonist, but she has a quiet inner strength that she must realize on her own. She is intelligent and able, but she lacks confidence. I found this refreshing, as many protagonists are a bit more arrogant than that. I enjoyed watching her grow through all of her jobs to come to a realization in the end of what she should be. I won’t reveal spoilers—it’s a short read, and worth the time.
What I enjoyed the most was Cushman’s historical research. I’m always fascinated by historical novels that do a great job integrating the local flavor of the time. I enjoyed some of the details about food eaten, ways barkeeps ripped off customers, ways boys might have bullied each other (and others), as well as beliefs and practices about delivering babies.
The shifting points of view took the focus of the story away from Beetle the entire time, though she was the main focus. We were also allowed briefly into other characters’ minds. Though short, it felt like the story was the right length for what had to be told. The author does not waste the reader’s time, and each chapter ended in an artistic way that felt complete while still promising there was more to the story. I will definitely check out some of her other works.