Sunday, October 18, 2015

Midwifery in the Dark Ages

This tale takes place during medieval times and makes one truly appreciate today's medical advances. Delivering babies in the Middle Ages was not only life-threatening, it was painful! There weren't competent doctors back then, only midwives who relied on nothing less than the power of Jesus to help a mother deliver her baby in a time when having a Caesarian guaranteed a slow, painful death. One particularly shocking thing to me was the midwife's method of coaxing a baby out of the womb. She would stick her head between the mother's legs and bellow into the birth canal, "Child, come forth! Christ calls you to the light!"

As the story begins a timid, orphaned girl is taken in by a gruff midwife to serve as her apprentice. This was a great, quick historical read, packed with much information and details. It is very real and gritty, Not at all on the middle ages' glamorous side, the kings, queens, and princesses, that we usually read about. This story is about everyday peasants and their lives.

Karen Cushman, author of The Midwife's Apprentice, has graduate degrees in Human Behavior and Museum Studies. She has a long-standing interest in history. She says, "I grew tired of hearing about kings, princes, generals, and presidents. I wanted to know what life was like for ordinary young people in other times." This book showed off Cushman’s strengths to their full advantage. Her writing is sure-handed, with lots of showing and not too much telling. She fully brings the reader into a medieval village without overusing words and explanations. The story of The Midwife's Apprentice incorporates realism without fatalism, spirit without warrior-heroics, and a truly empowered character whom readers will love. As much as I liked the young apprentice in this coming-of-age story, I really like the way Cushman shows her journey as one of process and something that needs to be worked on with success and failure along the way.

It seems appropriate that this month's centennial read selection was chosen for discussion since this is the time of year when banned books are recognized. The Midwife's Apprentice, a 1995 Newbery Award winner, was listed as banned for sexual content (a reference to “a roll in the hay”) and mysticism or paganism. Recommended for junior readers, it might be wise for parents to go over the book with their children so they don't end up with bizarre and inaccurate ideas about having babies. Cushman is accurate in writing in the perspective of a midwife's apprentice in this time period - and in this time period they got plenty of things wrong. In fact I kept a running list of the herbs used for remedies throughout the book and was intrigued by the strange (nicknames?) names of some. For example: fleabane, pockmarked, mewling, mallows, birthwort, gitterns, and sackbuts. More familiar herbs included larkspur, meadowsweet, foxglove, thimbleberry, and fennel.

Join us in the Old Hotel Tavern at 6:00 p.m. for a discussion of Cushman's novel on October 27, and stop by the library at 2:00 p.m. on October 31 for a BBC documentary showing of Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, and Death.

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