Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Catherine Called BirdyIs Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman a classic, or did I just pick that impression up somewhere?  If it’s not a classic, it should be!

I read this as a kid, probably more than once, and recently revisited it again.  It’s the fictional journal of Catherine, the daughter of a minor lord in Medieval England, who, as she writes, utterly loathes her life.  More specifically, she hates the restrictions society places on her, and most especially hates the idea of being sold in marriage.

Catherine is a delightful, strong-minded character who brings her world vividly to life.  This isn’t pretty, clean historical fiction, more like the modern world in costumes.  Catherine’s world is Medieval, complete with strange food, ghastly hygiene, fleas, a privy and old-style curses (like “God’s thumbs!”)  Catherine visits a monastery, sees a hanging and attends a wedding, giving us a good tour of the time period without feeling like a history lesson.

Catherine is obviously the strongest character, but we meet many others.  There’s Catherine’s barbarian-like father and refined mother.  There’s Perkin, a goatherd who dreams of being a scholar; Aerin, Catherine’s independent-minded friend; and a crowd of successive suitors.  Catherine grows over the course of the book, and much of the growth has to do with realizing that the people around her are far more complex than she had supposed.

The depth of the book and the characters is especially impressive because the novel really is written like a journal.  Most of Catherine’s entries are only a paragraph or two long, and actually sound like something a person could sit down and write about her life.  Many “journals” end up having a level of detail, with extensive description and long exchanges of dialogue, that no one could ever remember and write about her life.  I usually suspend disbelief in that area, but it’s nice to read one that really feels like a journal, and tells a complex, engaging story at the same time.

If you enjoy realistic historical fiction and strong heroines, this book is a great one to explore.  It’s a fun story with a very memorable heroine, and it’s cured me forever of any desire to live in the Middle Ages!

Author’s Site:

Other reviews:
Girl with Her Head in a Book
Scattered Pages
A Certain Slant of Light
Anyone else?

Buy it here: Catherine, Called Birdy

11 thoughts on “Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

  1. nadia

    Must re read again and again. Read each page slowly and thoughtfully, laughed out loud to myself, good memories. All young teens should read this book and then again as an adult 🙂 Karen , your a literary rock star to me!!

  2. I remember really liking this one when I was younger, and also The Midwife’s Apprentice. Oh, also The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, which gets bonus points from me for being set in California.

  3. I think this is one of those lesser known classics, sort of like Edward Eager’s magic series. My brother and I are the only people I know in real life who have even HEARD of that series. Or Famous Five, but maybe that’s just a British family growing up in America problem. I LOVED Catherine, Called Birdy. I vaguely remember the ending being realistic but not unhappy and I thought Birdy was a great character. And it also stopped any aspirations I had to time travel and be a woman in the middle ages haha

  4. This sounds like a great book. I enjoy stories written in journal-style – it’s very different from those written as straight narratives. I think it is a classic – I’d heard of it before I read your review.

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