Thursday, January 31, 2008

Karen Cushman

Matilda Bone
by Karen Cushman
Recommended Age: 12+

This meticulously-researched historical novel by the author of The Midwife’s Apprentice tells the story of Matilda, a fiercely religious girl who, against her will, becomes the attendant of a bone-setter named Red Peg.

The setting is a small city in fourteenth-century England. And beneath all the details about the state of medicine in the Middle Ages lies a story about a girl learning to think for herself, learning that life is to be enjoyed and that love and friendship are more healthful than fear and superstition.

You may enjoy the cast of characters, from the vulgar female physician named Doctor Margery to the witless wonderworker named Theobald...the dear old apothecary whose sight is failing, and his cheerful apprentice...the fiery kitchenmaid Tildy, a motherly patient named Effie, and a bloodletter who knows all his leeches by name.

But the most enjoyable thing is seeing Matilda’s transformation from self-pitying, self-righteous superstition to thinking, accepting, and opening her heart to people.

The Midwife's Apprentice
by Karen Cushman
Recommended Age: 12+

The 1996 Newbery Medal book is another well-researched, warm-hearted historical novel about a girl in Medieval England. This girl, like the title character in Matilda Bone, needs to find out who she is and where she belongs in the world. Only more so.

To begin with, she has no name and no memory of a family. She comes to the village knowing no name but Brat, and soon becomes Beetle because she is found sleeping in a dung heap for warmth. But the sharp-faced, cold-hearted midwife named Jane takes her in, feeds her, and gives her a place to sleep in return for a life of drudgery. Slowly the girl learns to stand up for herself against the bullying children of the village, to care for women and other creatures in the throes of childbirth, and to love at least one creature—the orange cat who follows her everywhere. Slowly, as well, she learns the rudiments of being a midwife—though certainly not because her mistress wants her to learn!

Soon, Beetle takes the name Alyce. But just as Alyce is beginning to “show up” her midwifing mistress, she suffers a cruel failure...she runs away and finds herself at “square one” again...and she learns a few more things, including the one thing she needs to find her place in the world.

Alyce is a heroine with spirit in a time of superstition, bad sanitation, widespread poverty, and unexpected delights. I hope you enjoy her colorful adventures, as I did, and finish the book wanting more.

Catherine, Called Birdy
by Karen Cushman
Recommended Age: 12+

This Newbery Honor Book by the author of The Midwife’s Apprentice and Matilda Bone is, like those other books, a historical novel set in Medieval England. The year 1290 to be more precise. It is told in the form of the diary of a strong-willed knight’s daughter who, at the age of 14, is starting to notice boys, worrying about whose bride she will be (not that she has any choice), and learning to use herbs to treat the sick and injured. She loves birds, she paints murals on her chamber wall, she thinks highly of the goat boy Perkin who wants to be a scholar, and she goes through all the guilt, temper-tantrums, hopeless crushes, dreadful fear, joy and sorrow and every other thing that would be experienced by any other 13th-century girl you might happen to know.

It’s an enjoyable story, not in the sense of a great adventure or a mystery that keeps you guessing, but in the sense of a beautiful depiction of life in a bygone age, with a spirited narrator and a bit of drama and suspense. Also, most of the entries in the diary, which covers more than a year’s time, include a description of who the saint of the day is—justifying Catherine’s own comment that religion is often very mysterious.

Let me give you three more reasons to pick this book. First, like other books by this author, it ends with an informative historical note. Second, unlike those books, the historical note in turn ends with a list of other books you might like to try. And finally, there are ample examples of passages like this one...
I watched the early morning light pass over and through the windows of colored glass, leaving streaks of red and green and yellow on the stone floor. When I was little, I used to try to capture the colored light. I thought I could hold it in my hand and carry it home. Now I know it is like happiness—it is there or it is not, and you cannot hold it or keep it.
...Perhaps you will be lured by the cover art and jacket note that suggests that this book is about the pranks a girl pulls to scare away unsuitable suitors. But in truth, that is only the smallest part of the pleasure of reading this book. Still, even if you opened this book for the wrong reason, I’ll bet you finished it with pleasure.

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple
by Karen Cushman
Recommended Age: 12+

Thanks again to my good friend Heather for sending me three of the four Karen Cushman books I recently read, including this one.

Unlike the other three, which take place in Medieval England, this historical novel zooms in on the place of women and children in the California Gold Rush of 1849 and the years that followed. Among those seeking a new life on the new frontier is Arvella Whipple, a young widow accompanied by her surviving children, Sierra, Prairie, Butte, and California Morning. The oldest, California, hates her name and soon decides she wants to be called Lucy instead, and so our story begins.

Lucy resents being dragged away from her Massachusetts home, where she has wonderful memories, and beloved grandparents, and the grave of her father and two younger siblings to remember. She immediately begins planning to get back to Massachusetts, while her mother and brother Butte and the two younger sisters simply settle into their new life in a tiny, ramshackle, but growing mining town.

The years that follow are marked by tragedy. You may, in fact, be surprised by the seriousness of this book. Like the other books of this author, it is narrated with a wry sense of humor...but it is not the lighthearted, goofy romp through the Old West you might expect. You can learn a lot about the hardships of living on the edge of civilization in an age when cholera, itinerant preachers, outlaws, Indians, mules, and mail that took a month to deliver were only a few of the hazards of every-day life. And you get a glimpse into the early stages of an American institution...I won’t tell you which...but I’ll give you a hint: you might be able to find this book there.

Enjoy this story for its collection of colorful characters, its bittersweet chronicle of a girl growing up, and the perilous adventures that include a murder trial, a major fire, a near drowning, and a horrible moment.

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