"Corpus Bones! I utterly loathe my life."
June 13, 2019 7:40 AM   Subscribe

Jeanna Kadlec writes for Nylon on how Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, "this queer, feminist book, defined [some] millennial women. For a particular age bracket of millennial women, this book was our first feminist guidebook. It was the first fiction that insisted: God wouldn't have given me this if he didn't want me to use it. It said: Your parents don't necessarily know what is best for you. It taught us about consent, showed us that we alone owned our bodies and minds and futures."
posted by ChuraChura (52 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
oh Lord, someone else who read this book! Someone else who thought it was a treasure! I wasn't middle-grade when I read it, but I was young enough that I read middle-grade in secret for comfort, and I loved it. Sometimes I will think of it and say to myself, how could a book like that just fall into the cracks of the couch? Why wasn't there a TV movie or something?

I am devoted to historical novels that show women acting for themselves and taking up their own lives in a historically accurate fashion, which is a very complex and delicate job to do. I remember how Catherine tries to run away with the Romany and lasts for about a morning. I remember how her father's one known moment of affection was the time he stood outside the gates and demanded her mother's hand from her family. But now that I think about it, I don't remember how the book ends. I should go to the library and check it out.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:54 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


Take a look at the Goodreads reviews - this is an unexpectedly polarizing book! Conservative christians don't like the swearing and the disrespect; someone (apparently from the UK?) complains that the protagonist doesn't seem aristocratic enough and that the audiobook is read by someone with a "common" accent; someone finds it unbelievable that a teen could be both rude to her father and kind to a goatherd....

If you liked this book, you might like Cynthia Voigt's Kingdom series. (The Wings of a Falcon will totally fuck you up, though; it's an astonishing YA book but not a fun, nice or reassuring read.)
posted by Frowner at 8:14 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


YES I LOVED THIS BOOK. I still remember how Catherine had a book of the Saints and would write about various Catholic Saints' Days including the gory deaths of female martyrs who refused to be married. It was a great unauthorized complement to my weekly CCD classes.

Karen Cushman also wrote The Midwife's Apprentice which is likewise wonderful.
posted by castlebravo at 8:14 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty sure I was assigned to read this in sixth grade English, and from that day to this one I have not spared a single thought for it. Such were the depths of my loathing for my sixth grade English teacher.

I have no memory of the book, literally none, except for the cover and my feelings of profound alienation as I read it. From the article I buy that it's feminist, but what's queer about it?
posted by potrzebie at 8:16 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


I read Catherine Called Birdy in the late nineties after I picked up a thrift shop copy for one of my nieces, and it was so, so good and funny. It made me laugh until I had tears streaming down my face. I remember Catherine's lines about her unfortunate would-be suitors. "So and so is coming to dine with us tonight. I shall black out my front teeth and act like a half-wit," and how the privy caught fire with one of the wretched sods inside it and he came hobbling out with his tights around his ankles ("I do not understand why everyone thought I had set the fire"). Her habit of heading each diary entry with a tidbit about the saint for the day was comic fodder too i.e., "This is the day of St. Such and Such, who was unfortunate in her children."

And I loved the theme of the book, how Catherine learned about personal agency and how to use it. When she runs away, she meets up with the king's sister, who tells her, "I am sister to the king, and I cannot do what I want. But I choose among the things I can do, and I enjoy my life."

I was in my late twenties, and although I understood personal agency quite well, it certainly didn't hurt me to read that. I'm glad I gave that book to my niece. I hope she and her two sisters all read it.
posted by orange swan at 8:18 AM on June 13 [4 favorites]


God I loved this book. So many little details from it stick out in my mind, like how Catherine painted a mural on her wall complete with yellow teeth because she couldn't get white paint, or how someone brought her back a shriveled orange from a trip abroad and it was the first orange she'd ever tasted, or how her gross dad asked her what color her hair was when it was clean because they washed their hair so infrequently... holy shit, how many times did I read this book? I might have to get it on Kindle now so I can read it on my commute home!
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:19 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


I might add that anyone who liked this book might enjoy Malcolm Bosse's Captives of Time. The heroine is a medieval teenager who is violently orphaned and has to put together a life for herself and her mute little brother, all alone in the world. I don't know where I found it as a kid, but on rereading, I was amazed at how grimdark it was, yet how hopeful.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:22 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


Karen Cushman also wrote The Midwife's Apprentice which is likewise wonderful.

I don't know if I ever read Catherine Called Birdy but I absolutely loved The Midwife's Apprentice. I think we had a copy in the classroom and I'd take the opportunity to read it whenever I could.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:22 AM on June 13


From the article I buy that it's feminist, but what's queer about it?

I don't actually specifically remember anything queer in this book (but then I read it two decades ago). I agree it's frustrating that the word "queer" appears in the headline and nowhere else in the article.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:23 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


From the article I buy that it's feminist, but what's queer about it?

Nothing. It's a clickbait headline. I also got the feeling that the article writer hadn't re-read it in a while, but that's a different issue.
posted by betweenthebars at 8:25 AM on June 13


yes yes yessss!

I still think a lot about when Birdy is told something like 'when you're called before God, He won't ask why were you not Perkin, or why were you not some other person, but why were you not yourself'. What a powerful short novel, that still lives with me so much.

The only thing I'm kinda sad about is that Birdy is another in a long line of YA heroines who can't abide spinning and embroidery, and it would have been very cool for Little Me to have someone to read about who loved handwork as much as I did/do.
posted by kalimac at 8:38 AM on June 13 [4 favorites]


kalimac - did you ever read the Circle of Magic books by Tamora Pierce? They're not set in Tortall, but one of the main characters has weaving magic.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:40 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]


ChuraChura, I did not! (I was an Alanna girl, obviously, but never found her other books.) Thank you so much, I'm honestly excited to check those out.
posted by kalimac at 8:42 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


Dang now I am gonna have to get this out of storage and reread it.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:46 AM on June 13


From the article I buy that it's feminist, but what's queer about it?

Nothing. It's a clickbait headline. I also got the feeling that the article writer hadn't re-read it in a while, but that's a different issue.


It has a tomboyish lady protagonist and she doesn't love any of the specific dudes on offer. Ergo, lesbian.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:50 AM on June 13


Based on hazy memories from, I believe, 1996 when I read this book, maybe the queer thing is where she wants to run away to a monastery instead of a convent because she'd like to work on books and stuff instead of embroidering? Probably a stretch but on the other hand feeling drawn to monasteries instead of convents is the kind of thing my trans self has done for years, so maybe?
posted by an octopus IRL at 8:52 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


It has a tomboyish lady protagonist and she doesn't love any of the specific dudes on offer. Ergo, lesbian.

But (spoiler alert) she winds up with a dude and is tentatively excited about it, and never seems to be put off by the concept of men, just by the specific men who are pursuing her. And I don't remember her expressing any interest in romantic or sexual anythings with women. As a bi tomboyish woman with a straight tomboyish mom, I have a big problem with non-femme women being automatically assigned a "queer" label even if there's no evidence they're attracted to women.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:07 AM on June 13 [11 favorites]


CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY WAS MY SHIT
posted by schroedinger at 9:09 AM on June 13 [7 favorites]


I will say, though, that I can definitely see how this book could be a powerful object of queer fantasy for readers (I was not out to myself when I read it so I couldn't say from personal experience, though I'm totally gonna reread it now). If the author of this article hasn't read the book for a while, I wouldn't be at all surprised if she was remembering things through that lens.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:10 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]


It's only $4 in the Kindle store! Let's have a book club! I call The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle next!
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:25 AM on June 13 [11 favorites]


I recently read Catherine Called Birdy and yeah, there weren't really any queer themes at all.

but it's still my shit
posted by schroedinger at 9:30 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]


CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY WAS MY SHIT

I LOVED THIS BOOK SO MUCH WHEN I WAS A KID
I think about it at LEAST once a month, usually the fight she has with that girl at a feast who tells Catherine her nasty attitude looks as bad on her as “that dress”, which always struck me as such a hilariously prim, dumb remark that Birdy probably took it as a sign she was doing something right.

Man I miss medieval* YA

*(early Renaissance? Can’t remember)
posted by peakes at 9:38 AM on June 13


It's only $4 in the Kindle store! Let's have a book club! I call The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle next!

Ugh I'm probably projecting and, again, haven't read the book in over twenty years, but Charlotte Doyle feels like a character with big FtM energy.
posted by an octopus IRL at 9:38 AM on June 13


Am I misremembering that Catherine wanted to cross dress at one point to try to sneak into a monastery? (And her brother? laughed at her and told her she didn't need to bother with binding her chest...) Or was that another medieval YA book?
posted by damayanti at 9:40 AM on June 13


Oh, whoops, missed an_octopus_IRL's comment above. So yes, that happened in the book.
posted by damayanti at 9:41 AM on June 13


AAAH SHIT I love True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and I would be SO DOWN for a nostalgic YA book club.

(I posted this elsewhere and people have also questioned whether "queer" is really a useful word to describe the book. I wish that meaning was something the author had actually discussed, and I apologize for missing how potentially problematic it was until it was pointed out to me!)
posted by ChuraChura at 9:42 AM on June 13


I'm in on this book club. I have been unexpectedly thinking of CCB a lot lately and have had no one to talk to about it.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:45 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


Omg, I just read the introduction and apparently this was the first novel Karen Cushman ever wrote, and the first work of fiction she ever tried to have published - and she started writing it at age 49. How totally awesome.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:10 AM on June 13 [4 favorites]


Oh wow that's really cool! Good for her (:
posted by an octopus IRL at 10:16 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


Am I misremembering that Catherine wanted to cross dress at one point to try to sneak into a monastery? (And her brother? laughed at her and told her she didn't need to bother with binding her chest...)

This is another one of the things I remember very clearly - her brother actually says she wouldn't be able to pass as a man even if she cross-dressed because of the "apples on her chest." I was juuuust beginning puberty when I read this and that idea of your changing body betraying you and complicating your life in small but unavoidable ways was Very Resonant For Me.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:34 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]


I loved this as a very young bookseller when it was new! Read it, featured it, hand-sold it a lot. Don’t recall many details of the story.

Captives of Time is rough, and I wonder if it would still bother me today almost 30 years after my first go at it. Grimdark is the right word for my vivid memories of it.
posted by verbminx at 10:37 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


Ha! I was also a young bookseller when it was new and loved it so much! Have never re-read it but might have to now...
posted by tangosnail at 10:45 AM on June 13


I (a very, very queer person) am glad to hear others in this thread expressing discomfort with declaring a book queer based on the protagonist’s distaste for compulsory femininity/compulsory marriage. It’s way too low a bar, for one, and also elides the fuck-this-patriarchal-shit space that many women, queer and straight and ace, share. I loved this book growing up, and I’m all for my fellow queer people building a queer headcanon around it—but there’s also so much value in letting straight-and-nonconforming and ace girls read their own stories into it. I feel like this book is emblematic of experiences we can share solidarity around, y’know?
posted by some_kind_of_toaster at 10:51 AM on June 13 [10 favorites]


Also, when a character’s lack of heterosexual relationships/attractions is taken as evidence of queerness it really sends the message “the only way to be queer is to not have any heterosexual attractions” and, um, not to be that bitch going on about bi erasure all the time, but....
posted by some_kind_of_toaster at 10:56 AM on June 13 [9 favorites]


Seconded so hard. (Although I did get a couple dozen pages in at lunch and was smacked in the face by what must surely be the main queer ship of this book. "Aelis is like a dove on the outside and a hawk on the inside, and I'm like a plain brown goose!" Oh gurl have I been there.)
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:58 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]


I too would like to voice my fondness for this particular book. She transcends the spunky tomboy aristocrat trope. the It’s such a shame there was never a sequel.
posted by Betty_effn_White at 11:37 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


Oh I loved this book! So glad to see it getting the appreciation it deserves.

Her mother nearly dying in childbirth made a terrifying impression on me though.
posted by Catseye at 11:56 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


My best friend told me I had to read it. We were already adults. It's since been one of my go-to gifts for girls of the appropriate age - and once for a middle-aged medievalist! It always gets rave reviews.
posted by jocelmeow at 2:03 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]


also I fucking loved The Midwife's Apprentice

edit: oops, it was already mentioned, well, let me second the endorsement
posted by schroedinger at 2:10 PM on June 13


I loved this as a very young bookseller when it was new

Samesies! There was a little group of us at the store who cared very deeply about YA, and this book was extremely important to us all.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 3:54 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]


(And I also want in on the book club.)
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 3:55 PM on June 13




Re: queer, it's often used as an umbrella term that doesn't necessarily connote same-sex sexual desire, but the rejection of patriarchal heteronormativity.

I mean, once students start going down the: binary gender implies heteronormativity which then means marriage and nuclear family, etc., they (and theorists) can see any tendency to question that whole package as queer.

So I reckon that's what this author has in mind, rather than strictly lesbian sub/text.
posted by allthinky at 6:15 AM on June 14


"writes for Nylon on ... feminist"

I'm still wrapping my head around this part of the fpp.
posted by eviemath at 6:30 AM on June 14


Re: queer, it's often used as an umbrella term that doesn't necessarily connote same-sex sexual desire, but the rejection of patriarchal heteronormativity.

I know some people use the word that way, but I frankly I am never going to accept a definition of "queer" that includes straight cis people.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:34 AM on June 14 [6 favorites]


At the end of the book, Birdy narrowly escapes a horrible marriage to a smelly, old would-be dog murderer, and is instead betrothed to his son, who is clean and loves books and reading. For these reasons Birdy is "prepared to love him." As a tween, I was kind of horrified that the book ended with her still having to compromise, but reader, I eventually got it.

"One day my father's angry liver will set him afire and I shall toast cheese on him."

*chef's kiss*
posted by notethisbean at 8:19 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Also, Birdy has one of those tween crushes on her father's ward, a golden-haired boy who turns out to be a disgusting bully. And she has that, uhh, fixation on her beautiful uncle George that is never really resolved. On the other hand, her friendship with Aelis is pretty intense. I think it's a stretch to say the book has queer subtext, but all power to it for it's depiction of complicated adolescent feelings. Birdy doesn't fit into a box, and neither do her relationships and that's pretty cool.

Her friendship with Perkin the goat herd who wants to be a scholar is so pure and I love it.
posted by notethisbean at 9:03 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


Re: queer, it's often used as an umbrella term that doesn't necessarily connote same-sex sexual desire, but the rejection of patriarchal heteronormativity.

The book ends with her becoming reconciled to a (possibly) gentler version of patriarchal heteronormativity, so it doesn't even fit that definition.

Also, what showbiz_liz said.
posted by betweenthebars at 2:54 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I follow this person on Twitter! Ooh. I think I consciously chose to not read this book in elementary school because the cover was really scary.
posted by yueliang at 10:12 PM on June 14


This sounds so interesting. We never read anything like it back in the olden days when I was in school. Because of this post and discussion, I just requested three of Karen Cushman's books from my library. Thanks, MetaFilter!
posted by a fish out of water at 12:58 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


All I remember about this book was the one passage where she wishes she were a boy because boys are allowed to do so many more things than girls. That stuck in the back of my head, but the rest really didn't. Maybe I should go back to it.
posted by dialMforMara at 11:43 AM on June 17


I loved this book as a kid. Read it about a million times, then started writing what was essentially Birdy fanfic, where a plucky medieval teen girl runs away from home disguised as a boy and Has Adventures and Solves Crimes. (Cadfael used to be on PBS around the time I came home from school, and my grandpa and I would watch it together.)

Looking back, the bit I remember most was the part where Birdy goes to the city (London? York?) and sees houses built with cantilevered second stories, so close that "Mistress A could pass a sausage to Mistress B across the street" (paraphrase). I was so disappointed the first time I went to London and could not find any of these magical cantilevered houses.
posted by basalganglia at 6:08 AM on June 23 [2 favorites]


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