Old labour and new parallels

4th July 1997 at 01:00
THE MIDWIFE'S APPRENTICE. By Karen Cushman. Macmillan Pounds 3.99. THE LOTTIE PROJECT. By Jacqueline Wilson. Doubleday Pounds 9.99

Here are two girls separated by almost seven centuries but united by their persistence, resourcefulness, subtle feistiness and fierce patience. The midwife's apprentice is Alyce - a name she gives herself after being found in motherless anonymity, sleeping on a dunghill. In a medieval world of casually cruel boys and indifferent villagers, Alyce has to rely on herself.

She learns she can make a living by helping bring life into the world. Her midwife mentor is a sharp-tongued, unhelpful character, but Alyce quickly grasps the uses of henbane, wormwood and belladonna for easing women's pain. She gains the confidence to deliver calves, and the steadfastness not to be fazed by failure.

This is early 14th-century England, and Karen Cushman gives a generously pre-Chaucerian sense of the country, with its alfresco amours and its farting pigs, its fairs and manor houses, as well as hurried glimpses into the world of lords and fine ladies.

At an inn Alyce meets an eccentric clerke of Oxenforde. The comedy of his polymathic knowledge and his unworldly fecklessness is well done. For all his insight into the Roman Empire and the four humours of the body, he is of little use at an unexpected childbirth.

The gentle portrait of Alyce growing into her vocation with the help of saints, skills and superstitions is set among the passing seasons of farm and village life. Sensuous details such as the silkiness of calves and the sticky softness of newborn babies have the animated feel of marginal drawings in a medieval manuscript. The book earned its Newbery Medal.

In Jacqueline Wilson's novel, Charlie (who hates being called Charlotte) goes to a cheerfully believable 1990s school, with a grumpy teacher and a set of friends with all-too-plausible crushes on boy bands and vociferous cussing of the real boys they have to sit next to. Charlie's colloquial narrative chatters through the vicissitudes of classroom life and the even more unpredictable fortunes of life at home with her mother, Jo. They are united in uncompromising mutual loyalty against well-intentioned sniffy grandparents and nosy neighbours, but all seems at risk when Jo thinks her new employer is Mr Fanciable - to Charlie he's an intruder and a wimp.

She makes sense of her troubled feelings through her class project on the Victorians. The more she discovers about the fictional nursery-maid Lottie (who hates being called Charlotte), the more she can deal imaginatively with her own anxieties.

Parallel chapters from the 20th and 19th centuries are deftly named after those found in countless topic books - School, Work, Food, Family, Law and Order. Charlie's and Lottie's stories reflect one another in countless ways, including absent fathers and cut-out pictures in the privy.

As Charlie learns about Lottie's life on Pounds 11 a year, she also learns the power of real feelings when her snide remarks help frighten away the little boy she fears will be her new stepbrother.

Some parts are hard to believe. The snooty swot's 14-room house full of Morris wallpaper might be true enough - but his attachment to Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Esther Waters is less easy to swallow. But this is a good read for 11-year-olds who want to know their counterparts a century ago were truly human.

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