Wednesday 13 May 2015

Catherine, Called Birdy - Karen Cushman

When this was first released, back in 1994, I was the same age as the protagonist Catherine. It could have been expected that this would have been the kind of book I'd have jumped at, medieval setting, disgruntled young teen at the heart of it, a little bit of love, a lot of comedy; what wouldn't I have liked. Unfortunately, I missed this one, probably in part due to the fact that at thirteen I considered myself far too much of a grown up to be reading 'kids books', unless I already loved them in any case. I was reading proper adult books by then and would never have given this a chance even if I had been aware of it. Now as a more mature reader (ahem, yeah so that might mean 'damn sight older'), I am loving getting stuck in to some of the great books that are out there for kids of all ages. This really should be considered as one of the great books. I get the impression that in the States this is pretty much a classic, but here in the UK, it really is very little known, and deserves to be more widely read.
OK, so as a criticism historical accuracy is not what this book is about. To a certain extent it is there, people dress in pretty much the correct way (the odd flouting of Sumptuary laws aside), the world revolves around the cycle of church and seasonal tasks etc, however at the same time Catherine is way too kick ass and ready to stand up for herself than you would expect a thirteenth century thirteen year old to be. The fact that her father has every intention and right to marry her off to any man of HIS choosing seems to come as a massive surprise to her. Even Shakespeare had his Juliet acting all shocked when confronted with this age old truth, so we can excuse Cushman for giving her character a bit of a surprise if only to allow the idea to shock modern readers. However, Catherine is not just shocked she is also determined to do something about it. Her attempts at getting out of marriage lead to more physical violence from her father than a lot of contemporary readers would appear to be happy with, but to be honest the level of free will she is willing to show could expect a beating or two at the very least back in 1290.
Catherine really is a great character, despite the anachronistic level of talking back to her father, she really doesn't read as though a modern teen has somehow been dropped in the high middle ages. She knows the stuff she should do (marriage prospects aside that it), she gets bored sitting around doing her sewing and spinning, but wants to alleviate that boredom by working out in the fields like the village children not by doing anything that would seem out of it's time.
I've read a few criticisms that have mentioned the mere fact that this takes the form of a diary as written by a thirteenth century girl as being a reason to dismiss the book. I think these are unfair, for two reasons. Firstly it is a misconception that EVERYONE in the Middle Ages was 100% illiterate, people didn't just wake up some time around the 1700s and all suddenly know how to read and write. In fact some level of literacy was common among a large swathe of the population, from being able to read and write as we would understand it down to having the ability to read and or write individual words or phrases usually from the Bible. So the idea of a girl having the ability to read and to record her thoughts is not that ridiculous. Secondly, she goes to great lengths to explain how her favourite brother, Edward, made a point of teaching her, giving an entirely plausible reason for her to have this ability. Not only this but the story makes it entirely clear that most people won't be able to read her book, giving the ability to her brothers, the Steward and a handful of others only. So I do not think this criticism holds up to much at all.
The style here has been compared to Adrian Mole, and there certainly are some levels where this is fair, overall though it reminded me more of Georgia Nicholson from  Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging the attitude and even the preoccupations seemed similar despite the difference in time period.
This is one of those books that I am really glad to have finally read, I half wish that the thirteen year old me had discovered it twenty one years ago, but at least I've had the pleasure now and can recommend it to as many young teens as possible in the future.

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