I try not to judge a book by its cover, but how could you look at the cover of The Midwife's Apprentice and not instantly know that you would LOVE this book? Illustrated in the style of the Renaissance Dutch masters, a young woman in a starched and pleated wimple looks out at you with a kind face, secretive smile, and eyes that have seen hardship. She is grinding herbs in a mortar while an orange tabby cat rests one paw on the pestle.
We are introduced to Beetle in the first page, sleeping in a composting dung heap to keep from freezing to death over the cold night. This is during the days of villages and superstitions, saints and devils, market fairs and no safety nets for orphan children. She is discovered by the local midwife, who pulls her out of the heap and away from the taunting village boys, not out of kindness, but because she accepts Beetle's offer to work for her for bread to eat. This is the midwife, and she needs a young, strong helper, hungry and willing to work hard.
The midwife is not a particularly nice person, not very nice at all, but we have to live within those times as we read the book, and go along with Beetle's happy acceptance of food, a place to sleep, and a purpose in life.
And Beetle does come to find her own place in life. A major turning point for how she begins to see herself and value herself is when she changes her name from Brat, and Beetle, to a regular name.
She is not a super-strong powerful clever girl. She is very normal, and many would identify with her halting efforts for confidence and courage, which bring their rewards in the end.
The Midwife's Apprentice is written by Karen Cushman. I bought this school library book discard at the thrift store for under a dollar.