For 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.
Day 30, Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
In 1290 in England, a young lady of a good family had one purpose: to marry well. “Well” meant finding a suitor whose name, means, and property were advantageous to the young lady’s family; compatibility or love were secondary concerns, if they were concerns at all. An arranged marriage is fate of the spirited and inquisitive Catherine, the only daughter of a minor nobleman, who is nicknamed Birdy because she collects and cages birds. At fourteen, Catherine is being prepared for betrothal by her father, a rough and loud country knight whose choices of mates horrify his willful daughter. His final choice is the most horrible of all: an old, crude, unschooled man Catherine calls Shaggy Beard. The thought of marrying this beast is repellent to Birdy and she steadfastly refuses, to the frustration of her father and amusement of her annoying older brother. She dreams of someone younger, a man who is pleasing and clean—and can read. Birdy, though alive centuries ago, wants what every woman wants in a compatible mate.
The pending banns hang over Catherine’s daily existence. Her domestic education is managed by her loving but conventional mother, now pregnant herself, but Catherine finds the tasks of managing a household achingly dull. Over the year of the book, she shares adventures as well as the mundane–the arrival of a performing troupe and the rescue of a bear; her mother’s prolonged labor and near death; the daily ritual of killing fleas. She gets some spiritual relief with the arrival of George, her favorite uncle, returned home from the Crusades. George is her ideal, but George is poor and hence limited in his choices. He loves Catherine’s childhood friend, but makes a beneficial match of his own to a wealthy but peculiar older woman. Though George’s new wife is sweet despite her strange behavior, the idealistic Catherine is confused. Are all marriages disappointments?
Why is Catherine, Called Birdy a good read for women? The book, awarded the Newbery Medal for excellence in writing for children, is presented in the epistolary style, so Catherine’s diary entries come from her pen to the reader’s heart. In modern terms, it could be said that Karen Cushman’s young heroine is seeking agency—the capacity a human being has for making choices. Agency was not awarded to the young daughters of minor English noblemen in the Middle Ages, and so Catherine’s wish for independence is dependent on the men who control her. The idea that this intelligent girl, so observant and eager to learn about the world, would be doomed to marry an old man with dreadful manners, little compassion, and no need for learning, is a chilling prospect. Catherine is smart enough to find a possible way out, but that requires luck–and help from unexpected sources.