1996: The Midwife’s Apprentice (from dung to placenta)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

The 1996 Newbery Medal Winner, The Midwife’s Apprentice, tells the story of a young girl who has nothing, not even a name. The villagers initially call her Beetle, because they find her sleeping in a dung heap for the warmth. Beetle works for the village midwife, a knowledgeable but cantankerous lady who assigns her a lot of work but barely feeds her. However, this is the first village in which Beetle has stayed for a long period of time and she appreciates the regular food and shelter. She adopts the name Alyce after someone at the fair mistakenly calls her that.

Over time, Alyce wins the respect of much of the village. She saves a boy her age from drowning, helps deliver his cow’s calves, and delivers a baby in the village when the midwife goes up to assist with another delivery at the manor. However, Alyce flees the village after she had to call the midwife in to a problematic delivery. While working as a tavern assistant, she learns to read. More importantly, she overheard the midwife talking to another patron, telling him that her assistant needed to stick with hard situations. After successfully delivering a baby on her own, she gains the confidence to return to the village. Alyce becomes truly the midwife’s apprentice rather than just her servant.

The Good: Despite the many disadvantages which Alyce faces, including being told constantly that she’s stupid, can’t do various tasks, etc., she is stubborn enough to choose her own path and disregard any naysayers. She demonstrates both cleverness and intelligence. In one of my favorite chapters, she impersonates the Devil and ensures that villagers engaged in various dishonest acts are punished. Her cat Purr is also an endearing sidekick. Further, the scope of the narrative fits the fairly concise length of the book.

The Bad: The narrative and characters are fairly stylized.  Part of this is the result of the pace of the narrative. The rest may be a deliberate choice – since the book is set in Medieval or early modern England, the style mimics such classics as the Canterbury Tales. Regardless, the style makes it challenging to connect with the characters on more than a superficial level.

I remember reading and enjoying this when I was in the target age range. I would recommend this for middle to late elementary school readers, particularly those who enjoy historical fiction. The simple style and inspiring heroine make this a decent Newbery read, although not one of my favorites.

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