Cushman, Karen. 1994. CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY. New York, New York. Clarion: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0395681863
2. PLOT SUMMARY
CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY is about a young girl growing up in England during the year 1290. Her brother, Edward who taught her to read and write, convinces her to write in a journal each day so that she might learn from her childish ways. Each journal entry tells of a different adventures Catherine goes through, including, visiting her brother at the abbey, staying with a duchess in her castle, traveling to a fair, and warding off many suitors who wish to marry her. Throughout the entries the readers are able to see the many struggles that her family members are going through as well as what her daily life is like. The biggest obstacle she faces is learning to be a lady so her father can find a suitable person for her to marry. By the end of September Catherine finally agrees to marry a man she refers to as Shaggy Beard and discovers that this life of being married might not be as bad as she thought.
3. CRITICAL ANALYSIS
CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY is an outstanding book for young readers to discover what life was like in the 1200’s. The main character Catherine is a modern day feminist who believes that women should be able to be crusader or a monk and never get married if they wish. The author paints a picture of 14 year old Catherine that many readers could identify with her struggles including arguing with her parents and siblings, hardships with friendship, and daydreaming about their life as an adult. On one account Catherine uses an old wives tale to try to determine who her future husband would be, “Last night I tucked a pin into a onion and put it under my pillow so I would dream of my future husband.” She is a very likable and funny character. What I also like about the book is that we only learn about the characters from the perspective of Catherine’s eyes. The reader never gets to met them or hear their side of the story, we just learn what Catherine wants us to know.
This story is what I picture most young girls going through in this time period. They work extremely hard doing household duties, and are learning the many rules of becoming a lady. “A silent woman is admired more than a noisy one, maids should be mild and meek, swift to hear and slow to speak.” Many girls are raised to be proper and delicate so their family’s can benefit when they get married be gaining more land or animals. Throughout the book the reader also witnesses the many festivals people had and the unique food and entertainment that was there. “We had oceans of fish and acres of dried apples, and musicians and jugglers and tumblers…”
The setting of the story is in 1290 on a medieval English manor. Although most of the story does take place at Catherine’s home the author paints the picture of what most villages were like during that time. There were churches, cottages, an alehouse, and a blacksmith. What is also interesting to read is how people got their entertainment during this time. One of Catherine’s journal entries describes a time where her and her friend go to a neighboring village to watch the hanging of two thieves. Another time Catherine goes to the Bartlemas Fair where she buys beads, a wooden whistle, and bone rattle, parchment paper and watches a dancing bear do silly tricks.
My favorite part of the entire book that also summarizes so much of Catherine’s personality is when she fights with her mother about going skating on a frozen pond. When her mother won’t allow it Catherine decides to make a list of all the things girls are not allowed to, “go on crusade, be horse trainers, be monks, laugh very loud, wear breeches, drink in ale house, cut their hair, piss in the fire to make it hiss, wear nothing, be alone, get sunburned, run, marry whom they will, and glide on the ice.”
4. REVIEW EXCERPTS
*Publishers Weekly- “The period has rarely been presented for young people with such authenticity; the exotic details will intrigue readers while they relate more closely to Birdy’s yen for independence and her sensibilities toward the downtrodden. Her tenacity and ebullient naivete are extraordinary; at once comic and thought-provoking, this first novel is a delight."
*Children’s Literature- “Cushman brings the Middle Ages alive with a revealing, humorous and riveting story of a young girl who devises clever schemes to escape marrying all the repulsive men her father would give her to. In the end Catherine marries, but the ending is also a beginning of a possible new life. All of this is revealed in Catherine's diary that details her fourteenth year growing up in a medieval English manor.”
*Booklist- “The diary format helps portray the tedium of life in the Middle Ages, the never-ending sewing, cooking, and other chores; the dirt and the illness; and, worse, the lowly role of women in medieval life. But this diary style also inhibits the ability of the characters to come alive. Birdy's is the only real voice. Fortunately, it's a sprightly voice, complete with its own brand of cursing ("God's thumbs!"), that moves the action.”
* Newbery Honor Book and Horn Book Fanfare award.
*Have students compare and contrast Catherine’s life to their own life.
*Allow students to create their own journals where they document their feelings and activities throughout the day.
*Read other Karen Cushman novels.
-THE MIDWIFE’S APPRENTICE. ISBN 9780064406307
-BALLAD OF LUCY WHIPPLE. ISBN 9780064406840
-RODZINA. ISBN 9780440419938