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CAtherine, Called Birdy

by Karen Cushman
205 pages, Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Jeanne

Amusing in some places, but also needlessly crude; some sexual content and poor morals.

Plot

Catherine, called Birdy, didn't start a diary because she wanted to; her family demanded that she do so. But, since she has to keep an account of her life, she feels she might as well put it to good use, and from there on she begins a tirade about life in Medieval Europe, about her longing for freedom, and about her various ways of getting rid of unwanted suitors.

Morality

Low, to say the least. Birdy is rebellious, impish, saucy, and speaks ill of almost everyone around her. Admittedly, many of her antics are funny (especially from the standpoint of the 21st Century, where being forced to marry is almost unheard-of in the Western world); still, for the time in which the story is set, Birdy is exceptionally spirited and careless of her father's wishes. She also sneaks away from her work and considers running away at one point. She then tries to curse her uncle so that he does not marry her best friend. In fact, the bad morals rest not only on Birdy, but on almost all the characters in the tale.

Spiritual Content

Again, Birdy attempts to curse someone (her plan, at least from her perspective, backfires). There is a lot of talk of the Devil and superstitions and there are also a great many feasts for saints, whom Birdy makes fun of in her journal. Gypsies and traveling Jews show up at one point.

Violence

Birdy is pulled around by the ear and shaken and slapped. During her angrier moments, she wishes violence upon her family, kicks her embroidery around, and the like. In the header dates of her journal entries she mentions what day it is and often whose feast day, and sometimes mentions saints being martyred in one way or another. There is a swordfight between two young men and one of them ends up dying, after his wound has been somewhat described; later, Birdy's mother has a hard time while giving birth. It was not a kind world during the Middle Ages, and some of that harshness comes into play.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Wine, mead (an alcoholic drink), beer, and the like are all consumed in great quantities and people are often drunk - especially Birdy's father.

Sexual Content

Being pregnant outside of wedlock is mentioned. There are instances of betrothals, marriages, love, flirting, and so on and Birdy mocks them fairly regularly; she also appears to be in love with her Uncle George at one point, but does not actually end up marrying him. She dresses as a boy in one section and makes mention of not being able to pass for one, should anyone look at her closely. Also, there is one part where she wonders if she could go to a monastery with her brother and she thinks that she would be able to pass, unless she was called upon to undress.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

A lot, which is fairly typical for the time period but not actually necessary. "P*ss" is used and there are frequent mentions of "relieving oneself." Chamber pots and their contents show up. Men make rude noises very often, on almost every other page. This is set in a time when it was fashionable to swear by various parts of God's body (ludicrous in the first place, as God does not possess human forms as we do) and Birdy uses that a great deal. "Corpus bones" is another one of her pet phrases. Also, see Sexual Content.

Conclusion

"Catherine, Called Birdy" is an amusing story, but it would have been better had it not been so crude. While this portrayal of life for common English people in the late 1200s is pretty accurate, much of the language and other content could have been left out without detracting from the plot. Elements of the story, such as Birdy's affection for her brother and her struggle to help save her mother's life after her mother gives birth, were better than others; but for the most part, the irreverence and the vulgarity made the story a poor read. A better book in the same line as this is Goose Chase by Patrice Kindl; though actually a fantasy, it does have a plainly Medieval feel to it.

Fun Score: 4
Values Score: 1
Written for Age: 11-12

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