CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY by Karen Cushman

In college, I ended up taking a class on Medieval women’s literature by accident. The class was simply called something like “special topics in women’s literature,” and I signed up because it was taught by a professor I loved. I’m not sure what I would have expected from the class if I had known what the “special topic” would be, but I loved it so much that I ended up writing a thesis about Joan of Arc and gender (with the same professor!). I’ve become completely fascinated by the lives and writing of Medieval women, who (to condense a thesis-worth of thoughts) were much more transgressive of gender boundaries than our Renaissance-fair stereotypes would lead us to believe. Pop culture contains myriad representations of this subject, and my professor recommended the children’s book Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman as an interesting, nuanced example. I’m so glad I finally took her up on it.

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Catherine, Called Birdy is a children’s novel written as a fictional diary of the titular character, a young noble girl living in England in 1290. The story progresses mostly as an account of her day-to-day life, but the closest thing to a central conflict is Catherine’s resistance towards her expectations as a proper lady, including an impending marriage over which she has little control. It’s pretty surprising that I hadn’t already read this book as a kid. As a subgenre, “fictional diaries of children in different historical periods” was right in my wheelhouse (I consumed The Royal Diaries series voraciously), and I was (no shock) particularly interested in heroines who fought against their gender expectations. I feel pretty confident that child Haley would have adored this book; modern-day Haley certainly enjoyed it a lot.

My favorite part of this book is how fully-formed the character of Catherine is. In so many of the girl-power stories of my childhood, the protagonists were a bit one-dimensional. Catherine, instead, is a constant paradox. She resents the pressures and responsibilities put on her, but she is also not a cardboard-cutout tomboy character. She is wild and ill-tempered, but she is also incredibly compassionate towards animals. She has no desire to be married, but she does have crushes on some of the boys in her life. She wants adventure, but she changes her mind about exactly which adventure daily. She likes stories about saints and plays about terrifying demons. She is complex, and therefore, felt much more alive. As Catherine herself writes of her behavior in front of a potential suitor: “I had no forewarning of danger so I acted like myself, some good and some bad, like always.”

Catherine, Called Birdy would do interesting work in teaching kids more about the Middle Ages. The cast of characters in Catherine’s life represent a variety of lifestyles and professions, including for women. These characters are made real by Catherine’s unfiltered opinions of them, which shift and evolve realistically. Often, Catherine laments her restrictions as a noble woman compared to the women of the village, especially in choosing who they wanted to marry. Catherine sees the good and bad in all of her options though, ultimately deciding to live in the role she was given as authentically as she can. This book doesn’t end quite like an adventure story might, but the quiet observations feel real to life.

Catherine’s voice is also so funny and smart. It doesn’t surprise me that Lena Dunham plans to make a movie around this lively character. Even though the book is now over 20 years old, it seems to move towards a female protagonist we still don’t see enough of, one who is messy and layered and genuine. I really enjoyed this book, and I wish I had read it a long time ago.

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3 thoughts on “CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY by Karen Cushman

  1. A fine review of “Catherine, Called Birdy,” Haley! Thanks for calling attention to a fine YA novel that doesn’t seem much read these days.

    My only problem with the novel was (I’m relying on memory here) that the heroine is, well, TOO articulate and forceful. I was in my early 30s when it came out and when I read it–and probably that informs my response–but I recall many points in the novel when my “suspension of disbelief” was, itself, suspended. I kept thinking, NO WAY.

    The Middle Ages are usually a trap for writers of fiction. Ellis Peters’s “Cadfael” mysteries? They’re fine. Mary Stewart’s Arthurian cycle? Totally OK.

    Right now, though, I can think of only three novels that, in their various ways, truly overcame the obstacles to making the Middle Ages seem other than merely colorful costume-drama theme-park rides:

    1. “The Once and Future King,” T.H. White. Writing in the thick of WWII, White somehow figured out how to meld trenchant commentary, brilliant fantasy, and outlandish anachronism into something that, in no way, resembles what the Middle Ages REALLY looked like, but through sheer power of voice and humor and insight, rings imaginatively true. Probably my applause of anachronism here is contrary to my problem with “Catherine,” but, well, there we are.

    2. “The Doomsday Book,” Connie Willis. This was a huge critical and commercial winner for the author when it came out in 1992, but, when I read it then, the author’s flat prose killed it for me. A few years ago, though, I re-read it, and, yup, her prose is STILL flat–but her attention to period detail, and, especially, though her smart juxtaposition of modern sensibilities in medieval landscapes, really brought the book to life. (I suppose, in a way, she literalized the anachronistic voices from “The Once and Future King” into a time-travel story that totally convinces.)

    3. “Flying to Nowhere,” John Fuller. OK, this is cheating. The author doesn’t specify that this novella is set in the Middle Ages, and, in truth, its fable-like structure obviates any such pinning-down. Still, having read it the same year that Umberto Eco’s overpraised “Name of the Rose” came out, I thought that it (FTN), in four-hundred fewer pages, evoked a truer, if exponentially more oneric, version of the same period. Wonderful.

    I suppose one could go on.

    Maybe you could ask your readers: What medieval-period fictions would THEY recommend, and why?

    msl

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    1. Thank you so much for these recommendations, they’re wonderful! I would love to build up a greater collection of works that feel authentic to this time period; they seem to be surprisingly rare! As for your comment about Catherine, I think that’s also something I’ve found not just in Medieval fiction, but in a lot of pieces with child narrators, especially these sort of faux-diary-constructs, so I imagine it breezed by me a bit as almost an element of the genre. That would be an interesting theme to seek out, too; child narrators that have strong voices and relevant observations about the world around them, but still retain some authenticity as a child. CORALINE by Neil Gaiman comes to mind, but she’s not the narrator of that story–makes me wonder how it might have been different if she were.

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  2. Oh, oh, oh!

    The idea of the “child narrator” that you bring up is interesting! There are SO MANY child narrators who are simply not credible: I mean, choose any of at least six in Dickens; ALL of the first-person narrators in Heinlein’s juvies from the 1950s; or, to bring this up to date, the impossibly-articulate dying teens (almost always female) in too many currently-popular YA novels.

    By sheer accident, though, I can think of a recent movie (alas, not a book, though the film is based [loosely] on a Henry James novel) that presents a spot-on child’s-eye view of what’s going on around her: “What Maisie Knew.” The film—again, adapted from the HJ novel, but updated to contemporary NYC—is shot almost entirely from the child’s point of view. Maisie (about nine years old) is the daughter of two well-to-do but self-involved parents who either neglect her or use her as a tool of retribution against the other parent.

    Wonderfully, what could easily be a “Lifetime” movie-of-the-week, is rendered more dimensional by the writers and director, who focus totally on Maisie, so that her parent’s arguments, their affairs, their many contretemps, are kind of a background burble to Maisie’s day, which is all about her going to school, coming home, doing homework, etc. etc.

    WOW! Maisie (like most nine-year-olds) is vocal but inarticulate. She sees and hears—but, even though she seems to intuit what’s going on, no narrative voice is forced on her. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

    I’ll have to think long and hard on a literary equivalent to that neat storytelling trick. Right now, nothing comes to mind. (In an analogous sort of way, Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon” achieves the same effect, but Charley’s arc [inarticulate to articulate to inarticulate] rigs the comparison.)

    ANYWAY: Apropos current fiction set during the Middle Ages: It came to me at work today why there are so few “believable” (hateful word) novels set during that period. I haven’t had time to check my memory yet, but I do believe that somewhere in William Manchester’s popular history, “A World Lit Only By Fire,” the author comments on the “alien” nature of the Middle Ages.

    That word (“alien”) has stuck with me, because I think it helpfully encapsulates the failure of writers (or, maybe, historians) to make the medieval period “real.” That is—because that time is (seemingly) near enough to be imagined, we think we can.

    Wrong. Without (paradoxically) a hell of a lot of imagination, the Medieval is impossibly alien, even though They are Us.

    So we rely on anachronism and fantasy to somehow recreate that world—because it’s more alien than alien.

    Which is also, I think, why my favorite fictions set during that time rely on fantasy and time-travel. Weird, huh? Maybe History, as a discipline, despite it’s apparent reliance on documents and evidence, is somehow the same way.

    Random thoughts. Sorry I’ve gone on too long.

    msl

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