- A Poetics of History: Karen Cushman’s Medieval World
There is no was.(William Faulkner)
Historical fiction occupies an uncertain space in the field of children’s literature. Offer a teacher or scholar a work of historical fiction in any genre, from picture book to novel, and you are sure to get a varied, contentious response about what makes historical fiction work. Why? Because historical fiction has ambitious, ambiguous aims. For instance, should historical fiction be good history, even if this means the story might be, say, a little dull? Or, on the other hand, should the author take liberties with setting, dialogue, and character in order to provide the audience with “a good read?” What happens when a historical fiction contains no “famous” historical personages, or no clear identification as to when in history the story takes place? In short, what are we supposed to experience when we read historical fiction? History? Fiction?
Karen Cushman’s Newbery Honor book Catherine, Called Birdy, and her Newbery Award-winning The Midwife’s Apprentice are no exceptions to this debate. Though honored by the Newbery award committee, Cushman’s Catherine and Apprentice nevertheless draw mixed opinions about the books’ merits as historical fiction from teachers and scholars alike. Those who favor the books praise the main characters, young women who discover within themselves the strength and confidence to survive, even thrive, in a brutal and unforgiving medieval world. Skeptics charge that Cushman’s work is not “real” historical fiction, but rather, simply “fiction” because her work sacrifices historical “facts” in order to tell what amounts to contemporary stories about female adolescence. 1 [End Page 251] Alyce, the main character in Apprentice, does, says, and thinks in a way young women in the fourteenth century simply could not. In Cushman’s first book set in medieval England, Catherine, the daughter of a knight—and by rights a “lady”—develops a keen sense for the logical inconsistency that surrounds and makes up her life, and grounds her demands for fair treatment on this way of seeing the world. Some argue, then, that the history in these novels reflects more of Cushman’s late twentieth-century concerns about women than it does historical truths of English medieval culture and countryside. And worse still, Cushman’s work has been labeled by some as “politically correct.”
Yet, to my mind, those critical of Cushman’s work rely on a too rigid sense of history and historiography. To dismiss Cushman on the grounds that her work violates traditional notions of historical fiction blinds us to Cushman’s larger project: Catherine, Called Birdy and A Midwife’s Apprentice challenge our notions of historical fiction, history, and how we make meaning of and from the past. Cushman’s first two novels reveal a passion for the process of history-making rather than the product produced by the historian—which is why she populates her texts with marginalized, heretofore unexamined characters from medieval England. No kings or bishops take center stage in her first two novels. Rather, young girls with no power, no voice, and little or no future are her protagonists.
Cushman sets out to challenge traditional notions of historical fiction by writing a new kind of historical fiction. Consider the literary notion of “setting.” Setting represents one traditional element of historical fiction, and it remains an element that, among others, raises the hackles on some historians. “Setting must be integral to the plot, otherwise the tale is simply a ‘costume romance’ that exploits rather than explores history. . . . Whether a picture book, a book for beginning readers, or a novel, the historical story is composed of two elements. To be taken seriously, it must fulfill the requirements for both good history and good literature” (310). Yet, just what amounts to “good history” and “good literature” is not always so clear, and in fact is largely determined by the individual reader. The historian Allan Nevins commented on this problem of perspective when he wrote, “the facts of the past do not change, but our view of them does” and as a result, “each era tends—and perhaps needs—to reevaluate history in the light of its own experience...