Karen Cushman

Catherine, Called Birdy

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Catherine, Called Birdy Summary

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Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy is a 1994 historical novel, the author’s first for children. It is written in the form of a diary and is set in England in the thirteenth century. The winner of a Newbery Honor and a Golden Kite Award, the book is considered somewhat unique in that, unlike many novels set in the Middle Ages, it presents many details about day to day life in the era. It shows how people conducted themselves, and what they believed in (with the Catholic Church being pervasive in ordinary life), and also shows the seemingly mundane details of things like what they wore, ate, and how they tended to their homes.

Catherine’s father is a somewhat well-to-do baron. The novel takes place between 1290 and 1291, when Catherine is thirteen and fourteen years of age. The journal Catherine keeps provides the structure of the book and she is keeping the diary at the request of Edward, her brother. Edward is a monk who is trying to impress upon his sister the great value of reading and writing. The narrative opens in the fall of 1290, with Catherine describing her life and her surroundings. She tells us of the manor in which she and her family live. Her father is loud and difficult to get along with, something of a brute, while her mother is very caring and sweet. Also prresent in her life is her favorite uncle, George. George returns from the Crusades and begins a romance with Lady Aelis, who is a friend of Catherine’s. Unfortunately, they are not able to get married because George is of a lower social class than Lady Aelis. They both eventually marry other people. George weds an older woman named Ethelfritha, who seems crazy, and Aelis first weds a young duke, and then Robert, who is Catherine’s brother.

As the story continues, Catherine writes of the everyday tasks of her life. She describes celebrations that take place during festivals and holidays like May Day and Easter. She describes the people of her village and her journeys through England. The single most important event to take place in this year of her life is her father’s decision that it is time for her to be married. He introduces her to a series of potential beaus, none of whom appeal to her in any way. Catherine is able to find something to which she can object in every suitor who comes her way. She finds them arrogant or ill-mannered, for example. She is able to frighten most of them off or she devises plots to make her father do so. Ultimately, he promises her hand to Shaggy Beard, who seems to be the worst of the lot. He is middle-aged, has already been married, and seems completely revolting.

For a year, Catherine does all she can to object to the marriage. She firmly refuses to marry him. She is aware, however, that her father does have the power to physically force her into the union. She thinks up many different scenarios in which she might escape her impending nuptials. She imagines running away and becoming a monk or going overseas to join the Crusades. The day of her official betrothal is approaching. She flees to the home of her Uncle George and Aunt Ethelfritha, hoping that with the help of her aunt, she can devise a way to get out of the marriage. When she arrives at their house she realizes that her aunt is insane and feels that she will end up the same way, regardless of who she marries. At this point, Catherine decides to let Uncle George take her home.

Upon arriving home, she receives word that Shaggy Beard has been killed in a fight at a tavern. Happy with this news, she also finds that she has now been promised in marriage to his son, Stephen. Stephen is unlike his father. He is young, well kept, and has an education. Catherine feels that perhaps she has finally found a match that will make her happy and thinks about being married and looks forward to being able to see him. That Catherine feels she has found happiness is no small feat. She lives at a time when women had few choices and women like her, who were rebellious, sarcastic, and headstrong, were not necessarily those who found happy endings.

In reviewing Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, Publishers Weekly cites the structure as a strength of the novel. “Birdy’s journal, begun as an assignment, first wells up in the reluctant and aggressive prose of hated homework, and then eases into the lighthearted flow of descriptive adventures and true confessions; the narrative device reveals Birdy’s passage from rebellious child to responsible adult. Despite the too-convenient ending, this first novel introduces an admirable heroine and pungently evokes a largely unfamiliar setting.”