Review: “Catherine, Called Birdy”

This morning, I finished reading “Catherine, Called Birdy” by Karen Cushman.  It was recommended to me by some of my favorite people: the librarians in my school.  I’m so glad they did, because there was an awful lot to enjoy about the book.

Catherine, or rather, Birdy begins a years worth of journaling by telling the reader: “I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.” (1)

Birdy is intelligent, witty and genuinely fourteen.  Birdy also lives in the late 13th century.  This is one of my favorite time periods, and I love how Cushman portrayed every day life in this book.  Naturally, since Birdy can read and write, she is part of the gentry (her father is a minor knight), but we still get a taste of the life of villagers, monks, sons, and of course, young women in the Middle Ages (remember my earlier post? Maybe if I’d been the daughter of a knight…).

Historically, there are lots of lovely tidbits sprinkled throughout the books – telling the tale of a year in the life allows for an awful lot of saints days (noted at the beginning of most of the entries), daily life and special occasions to pass by the reader’s eyes.  So the reader gets to enjoy (vicariously, of course) Christmas feasting, Lenten fasting, the gaiety of May Day and there’s even a glimpse of the harvest.  There are so many wonderful touches throughout.  One notable event was the passage of recently expelled Jews through Birdy’s home.  Birdy, who is possibly as curious as a certain eponymous monkey, “plan[s] to hide in the shadows of the hall in order to see their horns and tails.” (11)  She learns, of course, that the Jews have neither, and befriends one of them.

This episode and a few other (her nonchalant way of mentioning being beaten by her father, for example) give the history teacher in me pause.  There is some background information given about most of what happens to Birdy (including the 1290 expulsion of the Jews by King Edward I) in the narrative, but there are limits to what the story and the narrator can tell.  We can only know what a 14-year-old girl knows.  As a history teacher, I wish there were more background on this and other aspects of medieval life.  I would love to be able to use this in my classroom as a starting point for a discussion on medieval life, although I do not see that many boys would enjoy the book as much as the girls would.  I worry that any 6th – 9th grader reading this would not read the author’s note (which doesn’t mention the expulsion of the Jews at all, and focuses more on the social and cultural aspects of medieval life).  Cushman does give the titles of several other history books and historical fiction novels, however I don’t know that it is enough to fill in the gaps.

In the end, whether a young adult chooses only to read this book and no other, it will at the least, give that reader of life in the Middle Ages (eel pie, anyone?).  One can only hope that the young reader will ask questions that would lead her (or him!) to additional books that touch on similar topics.

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2 comments on “Review: “Catherine, Called Birdy”

  1. ann simon says:

    I used to give Catherine as extra credit to my regular World History I classes. It’s readily readable for, I would say, 7th-9th graders. The hi-test version is Connie Willis’ award winning “The Doomsday Book.” Have you read it, Jess? It’s 3 times as long and 5 times as good (and I liked Catherine)!

  2. Steve says:

    Hi Jessica,
    You and I are now following each other on Twitter, and I wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed reading your blog. Your articles are very interesting and impressive. Keep up the great work. It’s always nice to meet a fellow teacher.

    Best,
    Steve

    sreifman@verizon.net
    http://stevereifman.com
    http://twitter.com/#!/stevereifman

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