Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Review: Catherine Called Birdy

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Catherine Called Birdy

Author: Karen Cushman

Date: 1994

Publisher: Clarion / Houghton Mifflin

ISBN: 0-395-68186-3

Length: 169 pages

Quote: "Today I chased a rat about the hall with a broom and set the broom afire, ruined my embroidery, threw it in the privy, ate too much for dinner, hid in the barn and sulked, teased the littlest kitchen boy until hecried, turned the mattresses, took the linen outside for airing, hid from Morwenna and her endless chores, ate supper, brought in the forgotten linen now wet with dew, endured scolding and slapping from Morwenna, pinched Perkin, and went to bed. And having writ this, Edward, I feel no less childish or more learned than I was."

Thirteenth-century clerics were, as a general rule, discouraged from teaching their little sisters to write. Thirteenth-century thought did not generally concede that writing a book might make any child less childish. Karen Cushman postulates an eccentric cleric who thinks writing a diary would help his thirteen-year-old sister grow up, in order to give us an imaginative picture of thirteenth-century family life.

The central question her novel explores is how thirteenth-century young people (sons as well as daughters) resigned themselves to arranged marriages. (It could be worse; at least Catherine's duties aren't likely to include le droit de seigneur.) Marriages could be contracted for young children; some royal and noble offspring were betrothed at birth. Marriages were sometimes contracted between the royal or noble families of countries that had been at war. The ages of the bride and groom were not considered important; the important thing, if the families had any money, was uniting the financial interests of the two clans, and when that was possible, no outcry was raised about a six-year-old bridegroom being married to a forty-year-old bride. (It has been postulated that the custom of arranging marriages without considering age explains all those old stories about the king and queen who had no children.)

In historical fact, quite a few teenaged girls were married to older men they didn't love. Sometimes they were reconciled to the idea by thinking that these men were likely to die and leave their wives in control of their estates. Some couples who were married to each other felt like relatives, sometimes because they were. Some positively hated each other. Sometimes, as with Lady Jane Grey and Guildford Dudley, teenagers were married before either one had shown any interest in the opposite sex.

Catherine's task, in this novel, is to find a suitable man she doesn't hate before her father loses patience with her evasive tricks. (She discourages repulsive men by acting extra-bratty.) And Cushman's task is to present only those aspects of Catherine's situation that can be understood by modern thirteen-year-olds. She accomplishes this with great wit and aplomb, albeit by making Catherine both cleverer and luckier than many thirteenth-century teenagers were.

Adults who've read books like Philippe Aries' History of Private Life, Lewis's Allegory of Love, Mott's System of Courtly Love, et al., will be relieved to know that Cushman doesn't take her youthful audience through all the dodges unhappily married teenagers actually used. Catherine's quest for a tolerable marriage is limited to playing funny pranks that turn repulsive men off. Along the way we learn how thirteenth-century English people coped with germs and vermin, how they passed their time, how they expressed their (always nominally Catholic) spirituality, how they treated those richer or poorer than themselves, how they treated animals, and many other historical tidbits.

This award-winning novel may interest some readers in studying the history on which it was based; it certainly brings that history to vivid life. Readers will laugh, may cry, will probably be disgusted, and will come away from the book with a better appreciation of modern ways.