Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Spreading Her Wings: Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman


I am delivered! My mother and I have made a bargain. I may forego spinning as long as I write this account for Edward. My mother is not much for writing but has it in her heart to please Edward, now he is gone to be a monk.


Something is astir. I can feel my father's eyes following me about the hall, regarding me as he would a new warhorse or a bull bought for breeding. He asks me questions, the Beast who never speaks to me except with the flat of his hand to my cheek or my rump.

This morning: "Exactly how old are you, daughter? Have you all your teeth? What color is your hair when it is clean?"

Catherine is a spirited lass who avoids needlework whenever possible, and the tangled remnants of her embroidery and spindles are oft found tossed into the privy. Nicknamed Birdy for her chamber filled with singing birds, she loves animals and favors the company of the villagers over learning the duties of a lady of the manor--spinning, weaving, doctoring, accounting, and management skills. But with her two elder brothers away as knights in the king's service and her beloved third brother Edward in a monastery, Catherine's father, a far-from-rich knight, has become aware that his soon-to-be fourteen-year-old daughter is a marriageable commodity and begins to shop her around to the local peerage.

And when a series of lackwit and unappealing suitors appear to audition as her future husband, Birdy hides all day from them in the privy, blacks out her teeth, mutters comments that make her seem a lunatic, and soon sends them packing. At first she assumes the Lord of Lithgow (whom she nicknames "Shaggy Beard"), is trying to arrange a marriage for his son Stephen, but she finds that the true case is much worse.
It is Shaggy Beard himself who wishes to take me for wife! That dog assassin whose breath smells like the mouth of Hell, who makes wind like others make music, who attacks helpless animals with knives, who is ugly and old! I am offered a smelly, broken-toothed old man who drinks too much. I will not consent. I will never consent.

Still the prosperous but supremely undesirable suitor of advanced age and disgusting personal habits continues to dicker tenaciously with her father for her. Catherine's best efforts seem futile. Even running away fails to move her father from making an advantageous deal with the proposed bridegroom. But the year is 1290, and all of her pleas, wit, and spirit cannot dissuade the Beast from making a lucrative deal for his wayward daughter. But fate has something more in store for Birdy, in Karen Cushman's new edition of her Newbery Honor book, Catherine, Called Birdy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Clarion, 2019). Many things have changed since 1290, especially for girls and women, but young teens still chafe against the expectations of parents and society, and fate still favors those who bravely try to make their own way in the social milieu in which they find themselves. This novel of another time has much to say to modern young people about staying true to themselves and to what is right. The coming of age of Catherine, called Birdy, in which the lively main character makes her first non-self-serving choice, is a funny, hopeful, and moving read for middle readers just beginning to spread their wings and see the real landscape of life before them.

Karen Cushman is also the noted author of the Newbery Medal book, The Midwife's Apprentice, The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, Alchemy and Meggy Swann and Will Sparrow's Road. (Read my reviews here.)

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