This fall, just a few days before school was to begin, a young friend was hired on at a neighboring school as a brand new 6th grade teacher. My heart went out to her, knowing what challenges she would meet this year, how much she would have to learn in a very short time, and how many books and materials she would need to help teach the complex curriculum of that grade level. So I gave her my 6th grade class library, which had been in storage boxes (11 of them) since I left the 6th grade so suddenly three years ago. She is using them well, and I’m happy because I wouldn’t been able to part with those books to anyone less worthy, to paraphrase Donald Sutherland playing Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.
Even though I love teaching second grade now, I often find myself missing favorite units and favorite books from my 6th grade years. Matilda Bone, by Karen Cushman, was a book that many of my students read during and after our Middle Ages unit, and it was one book I kept instead of giving away because I had read Cushman’s other historical novels — The Midwife’s Apprentice, and Catherine, Called Birdy — but hadn’t read Matilda Bone yet.
And I particularly enjoyed this story of a 14-year old orphan girl, who had been cared for at the manor after her father’s death, and educated by the priest, Father Leufradus. She could read and write in Latin, something very unusual for the time, but she knew more about religion than about life, and more about saints than people. When she was sent to help the local bonesetter, Red Peg, her true education and growing up began.
Newbery medalist Karen Cushman assembles a cast of unforgettable characters in a fascinating and pungent setting: the medical quarter of a medieval English village. To Blood and Bone Alley, home of leech, barber-surgeon, and apothecary, comes Matilda, raised by a priest to be pious and learned, and now destined to assist Red Peg the Bonesetter. To Matilda’s dismay, her work will not involve Latin or writing, but lighting the fire, going to market, mixing plasters and poultices, and helping Peg treat patients. Matilda is appalled by the worldliness of her new surroundings and yearns for the days at the manor when all she did was study and pray. Lonely and misunderstood, she seems destined for a fate as tragic as that of any of the sharp-tongued saints she turns to for advice.
I loved that the people surrounding Matilda in this story treated her with such patience and kindness as she learned to be less pious and judgmental. I was also very interested in the medical aspect of the book — Cushman did a tremendous amount of research in preparation for writing it. It was an enjoyable read, and I’m glad I finally read it.
Other terrific reads about Medieval times from my old 6th grade library:
Crispin and the Cross of Lead, by Avi
The Ramsey Scallop, by Frances Temple
A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, by E. L. Konigsburg
The Squire’s Tale, by Gerald Morris