Review of Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

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
Be monks
Laugh very loud
Wear breeches
Drink in ale houses
Cut their hair
Piss in the fire to make it hiss
Wear nothing
Be alone
Get sunburned
Run
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.

Rating: 3/5

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15 Responses

  1. I read this when I was a kid and I remember really liking it. I’m not sure I’d like it now, as too many of her complaints on your list sound like a modern girl’s problems with a medieval girl’s life, but I can definitely see how it would be appropriate for a modern girl in that sense.

  2. LOL at the list of things she couldn’t do – how unfair!!

    I know a certain 13 yr old girl who had her cell phone taken away for 5 days because she pulled a fast one and wiggled out of the Christmas pageant; Catherine could teach her a few things!

  3. This book looks so familiar. I’m thinking that I picked it up a few months ago. Now I’m off to look for it.

  4. I haven’t heard of this one, but it sounds really good. I’ll look into it for The Girl. She’s always upset when her DS is taken away. LOL

  5. That cover is SO creepy, lol.

  6. This book made me a fan of Cushman…she’s a great historical fiction writer!! Loved your thoughts on this one!

  7. I remember when my neighbor’s daughter read this one for school – she complained about it constantly. Of course, they weren’t a family of readers. It sounds interesting to me.

  8. I’d like to check this one out. Maybe it will tone down my own comments about how rough it was when I was a kid.

  9. I am so glad I didn’t live back then … if I can’t piss on a fire to make it hiss, I don’t want to live!

  10. Interesting book. Wondering if the IPOD generation would even get it…hum… LOL at Jenners reply.

  11. The fate of young girls all the world over, in the olden days and still today in some places. Hope you visit my Sunday Salon.

  12. I read this a long time ago when I was a media specialist in middle school. I remember it as being one of Cushman’s ok reads. I agree with your 3/5 rating. I love your reference to the iPod generation. Reflective.

  13. I like the cover ad your review sounds interesting.

  14. LOL “could be an eye-opener to young teens who might resent having, e.g., their IPod use restricted!” Love that part of the review.

  15. […] contemporary beliefs. Fascinating and thought-provoking.” — SLJ.     Rhapsody in Books Webblog has one of my favorite reviews on it, including a list of the things girls were not allowed […]

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