I’d read this book many years ago. I happened across it in the library and picked it up for some Christmas break reading. Winner of the 1996 Newberry, it is a story of failure, courage, and finding that everybody is somebody, no matter how low their beginnings.
Brat had no name. Cold and hungry, she welcomed the sharp tongue and heavy hand of the town’s midwife, provided they also came with bread. Belittled by her new mistress, bullied by the boys, and treated with contempt by the entire town, Brat, now dubbed (dung) Beetle, did her work without complaining and little by little learned the skills of her new trade. After a man’s kind comment, she also dared to hope she might have some small importance in just being herself. “This face,” she said, “could belong to someone who can read. And has curls. And could have a lover before nightfall. And this is me, Beetle.” At that point, she also gave herself a real name. Alyce. Just when she was beginning to find a measure of confidence in her new skills, she fails.
Midwifery provides a keen metaphor for the growth taking place within Alyce. For just as her profession bring new life into the world, so must she be newborn. “Just because you don’t know everything don’t mean you know nothing,” a friend tells her. As she struggles with her shortcomings, Alyce learns to sing, she finds beauty beneath the dirt of her skin and her life, and she discovers courage and tenacity within her. “Jane Sharp! It is I, Alyce, your apprentice. I have come back. And if you do not let me in, I will try again and again.”
Moms, the book does contain a few earthy references to sexuality (the married baker is caught kissing Jane, the smith’s daughter cuddles the pig boy who “gathers his breeches” and runs). And there is plenty of ale and a few drunks. But it’s also chock full of imagery, colorful characters, witty dialog, medieval context, and the resiliance of the human spirit. I enjoyed it even more my second time through.