The Midwife’s Apprentice is one of those children’s books that can be read and enjoyed by anyone … adults, of course, as well as children. I discovered it a couple of years ago and it’s had a home on my bookcase ever since in defiance of the fact that, in a lot of ways, it’s “not my sort of book”. The story is powerful and unforgettable in spite of my usual reading preferences.
It’s difficult to know what to say about a book that is so beautiful and tiny … and beautiful in spite of being gritty.
The heroine of the story is an orphan girl without a home or a family or a name. One day in Medieval England she’s found by the midwife sleeping in a dung heap for warmth. She’s called Beetle by the villagers and becomes “the midwife’s apprentice”. She fetches and carries and does – in return for a roof over her head and dry bread – what no one else wants to do. The midwife is unkind and the boys of the village tease and torment Beetle. She doesn’t expect more and her life is better now than ever before … especially when she’s warm enough and fed enough to notice the world.
I don’t care for the gritty detail and the two bad words (bad in England, anyway), but I’m captivated by the story of transformation that follows this unpromising beginning.
First Beetle saves a cat from drowning. And then she saves a boy from drowning. She delivers a calf and then a baby. She finds a homeless waif in the pigsty and tells him that “Runt” is no name for a little boy. He chooses the King of England’s name so Beetle finds out what the king’s name is before sending Edward to the manor where he’ll find honest work and good food. And then comes the day when, at a fair, someone mistakes Beetle for a girl called Alyce who can read. She looks at her reflection and realises that she looks like that sort of girl.
I don’t want to spoil the story but I was mesmerised by what happened next … how Beetle, now called Alyce, fails to deliver a stubborn baby and runs away. And, more than that, how she discovers that Beetle is Alyce, how she learns to be kind and generous and tenacious in spite of her own hardship and suffering, how she becomes Alyce.
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend The Midwife’s Apprentice for anyone under twelve, but I recommend it for anyone over twelve who enjoys a good story and is willing to risk the grittiness and recognise the beauty of a remarkable story.