Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Corpus Bones! Karen Cushman writes some Wonderful Historical Fiction

I am often amazed how things connect and collide without plan -- serendipity. Often times this miraculously happens to me while reading. Lately I have been reading much of Scottish and English history, including some historical fiction. I just finished reading a book that was set during the reign of King Edward I "Longshanks".

In my quest to continue to read all of the Newbery Award books, I picked up two by Karen Cushman. Serendipitously they both took place during the reign of Longshanks (and made mention to him).

Catherine, Called Birdy
Newbery Honor Medal, 1995

"Corpus Bones! I utterly loathe my life."

Catherine, also called Birdy, is a young girl of 14 who lives in a manor house in England in 1290. Her brother Edward has recently left home to become a monk. He had taught Catherine to read and write and instructs her to keep a journal of her daily activities. She obtains a book of saints and marks whose feast day it is, often with hilarious commentary, and this diary becomes the vehicle for the story.

“I have noticed lately how many male saints were bishops, popes, missionaries, great scholars and teachers while female saints get to be saints mostly by being someone’s mother...”

Her father is seeking to find a husband for her, a prospect that she despises. She cleverly comes up with impressive schemes to avoid these betrothals. She is stubborn and strong willed, and also despises much of the chores and duties of young girls.

“Instead I thought to make a list of all the things girls are not allowed to do: Go on crusades, be horse trainers, be monks, laugh very loud, wear breeches, drink in ale houses, cut their hair, piss in the fire to make it hiss, wear nothing, be alone..”

The great part of this book (and other books by Karen Cushman) is that she deftly incorporates different facets of medieval culture in her books. While Birdy details her life, she tells of the routines of young women, and chronicles village, castle and manor life. We attend fairs, funerals, weddings, and feast days at the monastery. We learn about superstitions, herbal medicines and medical practices, manners, and feudal life.  Cushman includes an afterword and references for further information.

I found Birdy to be delightfully refreshing and often time quite hysterical. My concern is that the reader will assume that this was a "typical" young girl in Medieval England. I don't believe that Catherine would have really been allowed to be so rambunctious or unsubmissive. It reads as humorous, as a young feminist who refuses to be bowled over, but I think it might be a tad contrived.

None-the-less, it is a delightful read, and I do think that Cushman has done a decent job of presenting the difficulties and differences of the time. Medieval life wasn't easy and this book doesn't gloss over that. The lack of hygiene, the abundance of fleas, the unsafe water, the asinine medical practices, the lack of education is all fairly well represented.

The Midwives Apprentice
Newbery Medal, 1996

“Just because you don't know everything don't mean you know nothing.”

I really loved this book. I found in empowering, promising and hope filled. Karen Cushman can pack a wonderful novel into a small package. A few pages into the book and I was captivated by the life of this young girl in Medieval England. In Birdy, we followed a higher class of life, whereas here, we have a glimpse into the world of an insignificant, nameless orphan who sleeps in a dung heap to protect herself from the bitter cold.

"Dung Beetle" (so named because of her choice of sleeping in the dung heap) is taken in by Jane, the midwife, where she is a hard worker and accompanies Jane to birthings. Little by little through many situations and circumstances Beetle changes her belief that she is unworthy, and opens herself up to believe in herself. This progression is often times painful and thought provoking. Yet while we observe her small steps to transforming herself, it is hard to not be flooded with hope, and filled with respect for her strength of spirit.

One of my favorite parts of the story is when Beetle is sent to the fair to buy supplies for the midwife and is mistaken for a girl named Alyce. She is so taken aback that someone could mistake her for someone with a name, a pretty name, that she renames herself Alyce.

Little by little she reworks herself into a new person. The chronicling of her learning to sing and make music, as well as her learning letters and small words are parts of the story which detail the beautiful transformation of this young girl.

One small side note is that there are two instances that could be considered of a bit more mature content. In one reference a couple is caught in the haystacks. The details are sparse and I believe it would not be obvious to a younger reader what had transpired. Another reference is to the midwife having an adulterous affair with the baker. Again the situation lacks detail, and Alyce exposes the guilty parties in an unusual fashion.

This books has quickly jumped onto my list of "must reads".

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