I believe Catherine, Called Birdy (Grades 5-9, Level X, Lexile 1170) by Karen Cushman first exposed me to a certain brand of literary wit that I have come to love—the feminist kind. I distinctly remember feeling more sophisticated after reading this book. I chuckled at the wry humor and enjoyed figuring out the medieval vernacular. I also picked up on a certain underlying message about the challenges that women faced throughout history. This book helped me evolve from a very “girls rule, boys drool” mentality, to a more solid realization that the struggle is real when it comes to women’s rights. I went on to read other books by Cushman that brought similar feelings and revelations. I was reminded of all of this when I read Cushman’s newest title, Grayling’s Song, where I found cause once again to delight in Cushman’s craft.
On Karen Cushman’s New Book
First, Grayling’s Song is a fantasy, unlike Cushman’s other works which are historical fiction. Still, details about the setting and characters point to a world not unlike the medieval societies she portrays in Catherine, Called Birdy and other titles like The Midwife’s Apprentice and Matilda Bone. The magic involved brings in a whole new element of whimsy that I really enjoy! In the story, we meet Grayling, the daughter and loyal helper (although seemingly melancholy about this role) of a talented hedge witch named Hannah Strong.
When an evil force burns down their home, steals Hannah’s grimoire (spell book) and turns Hannah into a tree, Hannah instructs her daughter to go out in the world and sing the gathering song to find “the others” to help break the spell. Who are “the others?” Hannah explains: “Hedge witches, hags, charmers and spellbinders, conjurers, wizards, and soothsayers. You do not think I am the only cunning woman in the world? We be solitary folks, but they will come when you call.”
After learning the song, Grayling reluctantly sets off to seek the others and learns that the evil is more widespread. She soon becomes entangled in a quest to help magical folk everywhere. A ragtag group of the others (of various levels of magical competency) joins her along the way. My favorite supporting character, a talking, shapeshifting mouse, ends up being Graylings strongest companion throughout the novel…he’s just so loveable! Other peculiarly awesome characters include an aroma-inducing enchantress, a weather witch and a soothsayer who uses cheese in his divinations.
Strong Female Characters
Throughout the course of the narrative, Grayling evolves from a somewhat insecure and timid girl to a bold and decisive young woman. As she makes decisions, leads the group and ultimately slays the metaphorical dragon, she comes to realize her own worth. Karen Cushman’s books tend to have strong female protagonists who project a certain wisdom and realism about meeting life’s challenges. As I was reading about Grayling, I saw opportunities to compare her to Catherine, Alyce and Matilda from Cushman’s other books. Although all of their situations and personalities are different, they take similar steps to take hold of their own destiny. In some cases, this means accepting the inevitable with gumption (e.g. Catherine’s arranged marriage). In Grayling’s case, she meets a more exciting fate, literally leading a group of magic people on a victorious quest, and then, at the end of the book, setting off to continue her journey of self-discovery.
Cushman’s array of strong female characters provides opportunities for comparison and contrast and could carry over to writing activities. For instance, asking, “What makes a strong female character?” and then having students incorporate those elements into their own fictional writing. I think focusing on the settings of the novels could also be interesting—“In regards to character development, what liberties does a fantasy setting afford an author in comparison to a historical fiction setting?” For more insights from Cushman about strong female characters, check out this blog post from the Keeping it in Canon…mostly blog.
Language and Humor
When I think of Karen Cushman, I immediate think of her fantastic use of wit and historical lingo and context. Here are a few lines from her books that combine both of these:
“I have developed a rash on my body where the rough cloth rubs on my skin. I wanted to take a bath, thinking that the dirt on my skin made the rash worse, but the bathing tub has been turned upside down and is being used as an extra table in the kitchen and I cannot have it until spring, so I just spread goose grease on my rash. The dogs are following me everywhere.”
― Catherine, Called Birdy
“Corpus bones, I thought. To be wedded to this perfumed prig with his mouth in a knot and a frown always on his face!”
“‘But all she knew was cursing: ‘Damn you, cat, breathe and live, you flea-bitten sod, or I’ll kill you myself.’”
—The Midwife’s Apprentice
“‘Grayling, come at once, or I shall turn you into a toad!’ … Belike she would if she could, Grayling though. By borage and bryony, I can do one thing at a time. Why can she not do whatever it is herself and leave me be?”
Researching the contexts of these quotes to learn more about the time periods in which they were set can be fun. I mean, who doesn’t love uncovering the meaning behind a snappy Elizabethan slur? Honing in specifically on the language, have students interpret words and phrases as they appear in a text. How does the casual use of medieval terms (like “privy” in Catherine, Called Birdy) influence the authenticity of the text?
Looking back on my own reading life, I’m glad I came across Karen Cushman because she helped me discover my own literary tastes. I think that’s the most important thing about author studies—they focus students’ attentions on a particular writer’s style, causing them to evaluate what they like and dislike. From there, they can start to develop their own repertoire of favorites. When Grayling’s Song came across my desk, I teared up a little as memories of Catherine and Alyce flooded in. Reading a new Cushman work was like visiting an old friend.