Sometimes historical fiction books are a little on the boring side, but I really enjoyed reading Catherine, Called Birdy. Karen Cushman does a wonderful job creating a story in different place and time that girls especially can relate too. Somehow, she makes the middle ages, 1290 to be exact, an interesting place.
Catherine, Called Birdy is the story of a 14 year old daughter of a low ranking knight. Her job is to learn to be a lady and to secure a husband that will raise her place in life. Unfortunately for her parents, that is not what she wants out of life. Catherine doesn't want to marry only for riches nor does she want to expect the demur life of a lady. She hates spinning, embroidering, talking softly, and being trapped inside with boring ladies. She wishes to have great adventures and the ability to roam free. Catherine's father's goal is marry her off with a good profit, and for every suitor that her father finds she manages to run them off.
I like how Karen Cushman has Catherine keeping a journal to please her brother Edward, a priest. He thinks that "...writing this account of my days will help me grow less childish and more learned..." (pg. 2) Because it does show how much she grows during the story. She learns some important lessons about love. Amazingly, her mother feels a romantic love for her father, her friend and uncle give up on their true love and settle for a so-so happiness, and finally she accepts that she will learn to love her new husband, Stephen. Catherine also learns about putting others first. She puts her wants and needs aside to care for her mother during her pregnancy and illness after birth. Next, she takes her dowry and spends part of it on a ragged bear, and the other part she gives to Perkins, the goat herder, so that he can buy his freedom and become a scholar. Finally, she makes a deal with her father that if he gives Perkins's deceased grandmother's cottage to Meg and Alf, then she will marry "Shaggy Beard", her father's desired suitor, without protest.
Catherine Called Birdy is a wonderful book to learn more about the middle ages. Karen Cushman uses the character's language, their actions, and their beliefs to help the reader understand the time period. Catherine's first phrase in the story is "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...My father must suffer from ale head this day, for he cracked me twice before dinner instead of once. I hope his angry liver burst." (pg. 1) What a great way to start children to start thinking about how Catherine's life is different than theirs. Who gets fleas? or Cracked at dinner? Even her foul language, "Corpus Bones!!!," represents the time frame.
Karen Cushman also has her characters act appropriate for the time period. Catherine talks about how they celebrate many of the religious holidays (Almost every day is for some saint). You learn how it was common for large parties to common for holidays like Christmas and that they stay for days and even weeks with the host feeding them and the whole village. There where very few ways to increase your wealth so marriage wasn't about love. Catherine's friend, Aelis, isn't allowed to wed her true love and instead is forced to marry a young boy who isn't even old enough to leave his mother. All of these ideas seem foreign and silly to us, but they were a common part of the middle ages.
The story also discusses the beliefs of the time. During the medieval times they used a lot of natural remedies to help those that where sick. Some of them good, such as chamomile and honey, others are not so good, such as untying all the knots and unstopping all the jugs in the house. Their lives revolved around the church and its beliefs. In Catherine's diary, she writes about each of the Saints' days and feast, thanks to the book of Saints that the abbot had given her at the Abbey. Finally, Catherine Called Birdy has a great appendix section that discusses the structure of the society during Catherine's time period. Everyone had a place and a job today to keep the village and kingdom running. This story is a great introduction to the medieval period.
I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about the middle ages and learn about a girl that has a strong spirit and learns to make the best out of her place in life.