This Newbery Winner for Young Adults was the perfect book to follow my reading of Kristin Lavransdatter and Dooms Day Book, for it tells much the same story but from the point of view of a fourteen-year old girl.
Catherine’s diary of the year 1290 is meant to show 21st century readers just what girls back then had to endure. Catherine felt like she was a bird trapped in a cage because there were so many things girls could not do. Much of her time is spent learning to be “a lady,” which means hours of sewing and embroidery, mixing up tonics and herbal remedies, helping to rid the bedding of the ever-present fleas, and preparing to be the object of negotiation in a marriage agreement determined by her father. This last “duty” is the one she rebels against most of all. She hopes her visiting Uncle George, back from the Crusades, will somehow provide her with a way out:
Since my uncle George has had experience with adventures, I am hoping that he can help me escape this life of hemming and mending and fishing for husbands. I would much prefer crusading, swinging my sword at heathens and sleeping under starry skies on the other end of the world.”
She makes a list of all the things girls aren’t allowed to do:
Go on crusade
Be horse trainers
Laugh very loud
Drink in ale houses
Cut their hair
Piss in the fire to make it hiss
Marry whom they will
Glide on the ice
By way of her adolescent rants and yearnings, we get a flavor of what the 13th Century was like: the food they ate, the clothes they wore, hygiene (or more accurately, lack thereof) and the persistence of superstition in spite of culturally-embedded Christianity. And we get to know Catherine quite well. She can be a moody, headstrong brat, or a caring, loyal friend, or a curious seeker of knowledge hungry to know more about her world.
Evaluation: The author, Karen Cushman, who has done extensive research into medieval English history and culture, provides us with a great deal of detail about life in the Middle Ages. Girls will no doubt be amazed at the extent to which (very) young daughters were bartered away to old men in exchange for money and/or property. I think this charming book could be an eye-opener to young teens who might resent having, e.g., their IPod use restricted.