Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman

Title: Catherine, Called Birdy
Author: Karen Cushman
Year of Publication: 1994
Length: 224 pages
Genre: historical fiction – young adult
New or Re-Read?: many, many times re-read
Rating: 5 stars

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and has been since I first read it at the age of 9. I return to it about once a year, just out of sheer joy.

Catherine, Called Birdy is the tale of a fourteen-year-old girl in England in the year 1290. To please her monk brother Edward, who thinks the exercise will make her more observant and thoughtful, she sets to writing down an account of her life. The reader follows Birdy through a transformative year. The major plot is her attempt to avoid marriage to one of many odious suitors, but there are dozens of smaller plot points as well, threaded in and out of the main story with a casual ease that very much gives the sense of day-to-day life. The best aspect of the novel, though, is Birdy herself. Quick-witted and short-tempered, she grumbles, fusses, and curses her way through her life with a delightful sort of unpolished charm. Sometimes pragmatic, and at other times incredibly soft-hearted, Birdy is above all strong-minded, aching for an independence her world cannot give her, beating her wings against the bars of her cage. She approaches her frustrations head-on, often acting first and thinking later, and her observations on her life, her family, and the villagers are often hilariously funny.

Cushman gives remarkable detail to the nuances, idiosyncrasies, and oddities of medieval life, particularly for a young adult novel. From holiday customs to the cycle of the year, from the tremendous lack of privacy to the mysteries of childbirth, Cushman draws the world out in a way that is educational without being didactic. I appreciate that she treats the period with a sensible perspective: neither doom-and-gloom nor idyllic. Yes, life could be hard, and yes, hygiene was still a few centuries off, and yes, death was a more constant companion than we typically think of it today — but people still celebrated triumphs, fell in love, reveled during holidays (and got hangovers), cherished their pets, and basked in the sunlight. Cushman blends the hardships with the joys magnificently. I also like the status she chose for her main character. Birdy is the daughter of a common country knight, a man with some land but no title, very much a large fish in a quite small pond. This position frees Birdy from the tedium of a serf’s life, but is not elevated enough to allow her true luxury — as she complains:

If I had to be born a lady, why not a rich lady, so someone else could do the work and I could lie on a silken bed and listen to a beautiful minstrel while my servants hemmed? Instead I am the daughter of a country knight with but ten servants, seventy villagers, no minstrel, and acres of unhemmed linen. It grumbles my guts.

Like most teenage girls, Birdy sees almost everyone else in the world as possessing a position more favourable than her own. She envies the villagers for the freedom they have to marry where they will and to be outside in the sunshine rather than stuck indoors, but eventually recognises that their labour is harder than hers, and that their freedoms are few, tied as they are to the land and to their feudal obligations. She envies ladies wealthier than her, but comes to learn that higher rank only brings more responsibilities and entanglements, not fewer. She envies men that they can have adventures, go on Crusade, spit and swear, and generally make their lives what they want them — but later realises that’s really the case for only a few of them, and that adventures are mostly dangerous, Crusades bloody, and responsibilities generally far more numerous than freedoms. She hates her father and eldest brother, but by the end of the book, has seen different sides of each, causing her to at least rethink her assessment and consider them from someone else’s perspective, even if she still doesn’t like them any better herself. Birdy yearns to be someone else — anyone else — a puppeteer, a Crusader, a peddlar, a songmaker, a bird-trainer, an outlaw maid — her fantasy life is rich and vivid, and she shares her daydreams with us without hesitation, then shares her awareness of their impossibilities just as frankly. The major lesson for Birdy is that she has to learn to be happy with who and what she is. As a Jewish woman (on her way out of England, thanks to the purge of Edward I — another interesting inclusion of historical reality) tells her, “‘Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked “Why were you not George?” or “Why were you not Perkin?” but “Why were you not Catherine?”‘” It takes Birdy rather a while to grasp the meaning of that, but when she does, you can see her start to get more comfortable with herself.

There are some inaccuracies in the mix, but considering that this is a young adult novel, not a historical treatise, I really don’t mind. Yes, Birdy would have been an astonishingly unique character in 1290 England — but women like her did exist, even if they were few, far between, and rarely as successful in their rebellions. Cushman doesn’t cheat the typical experience of a thirteenth-century woman, and Birdy has to confront, again and again, what she cannot do. I think Cushman balances the historical reality nicely with the need to appeal to modern readers. Perhaps the greatest fiction is the premise of the novel itself — that anyone would have wasted paper and ink, expensive luxuries, on personal thoughts. But that’s not an anachronism that’s ever going to occur to the target audience, and the conceit allows the reader to enjoy Birdy’s fantastic voice all the way through.

I wish that, at some point, it had occurred to me to keep better track of my reactions to this book throughout my life. I know that from the start, I adored Birdy for being feisty, short-tempered, and impatient — all flaws I could easily relate to. As I said, I was 9 when I first read this (the year it came out), and then, fourteen seems so very far away. I remember re-reading it a year later, to the shock of one of the priggish girls in my class, who had taken great offence at Birdy’s realisation that she cannot run away and become a monk: “…with these apples on my chest, I would not fool even the most aged of abbots. Deus! Last year they were but walnuts and I might have gotten away of it.” Still far away from even walnut category, my prim classmate had been deeply uncomfortable with Birdy’s frank discussion of bodily changes. Well into apple territory already at age 10, early bloomer that I was, I appreciated Birdy’s honesty. Through the years of puberty, Birdy remained a friend, eminently relatable, someone who knew all about the awkwardness, emotional turmoil, and desperate confusion of that span of life. Her temper fits, her sulks, days of euphoric optimism contrasted with days of hopeless despair — What teenage girl doesn’t know precisely what that’s like?

I’m older now, and I look back on my early teenage years with no sentimental fondness whatsoever. Though I’m well past Birdy’s age (indeed, for someone who calls her mother old at thirty-odd, I would seem well and truly past my prime to her, I suspect), her struggles are still relatable, even if some are in hindsight now. Others, though, remain relevant. At 26, I’m still working out the question of how to be the version of myself I most want to be. How do I reconcile my dreams with my reality? How do I find joy in every day of my life? These are some of the questions Birdy tackles, and they’re ones I’m still exploring. And on this read, probably for the first time, I’ve started thinking about how I’ll someday share this book with my own daughters, and how I hope that they’ll find Birdy as true a friend as I always have.

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