Matilda Bone by Karen Cushman

Date reviewed: 1/26/03              Grades 4-8

author’s website with discussion guide

Summary: Matilda has been apprenticed to the local bone-setter after her mentor, Father Leufredus, has left (or abandoned her) for London. Matilda has been raised with a firm religious education. She can also read, write, and do math – all of these traits are unusual in the common people and give Matilda a reason to feel slightly superior. She learns slowly to perform the menial work of a servant girl in the house of the bonesetter and gradually feels more at ease in their company. However, religious dogma rules her thoughts which are constantly looking to the saints to confirm her feelings about her new life.

Personal Reaction: I liked this story a lot though I wouldn’t go so far as to exclaim that it was the best story I’ve read this year. Matilda’s inner conversations with saints are pretty funny. (Example: “Matilda worried until her head hurt, but Saint Denis, when called upon for aid, said only, Your head aches? I had no head, and Nathaniel dosed her with a tincture of dropwort and birch.”) I think students will have difficulty with some of the Latin Matilda frequently uses and all of the saints she names, but I don’t think it will cause them to put the book away permanently. I think the cover illustrations give the reader a good start.

Any Cautions:  As with Stink Alley by Gilson, a major vein of this story is that Matilda must learn to decide for herself whether what she has been taught religiously applies to her new situation. The people she lives with aren’t as religious as she – their priorities are elsewhere. Without a firm reason to read-aloud, some parents and/or cultures may object to students being shown that it is ok to question their religion or religious leaders.

Points for discussion with children:  Medieval period and history of medical practices, self-determination

Possible classroom uses: This could be used in Social Studies in studying medieval times / the middle ages – the religion issue can be sidestepped for this curriculum topic.

Connections to other books? Cushman’s other novels could also be used in a unit for the middle ages (Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife’s Apprentice). I have an illustrated history of dentistry Toothworms & Spider Juice that I might also display next to this or The Alarming History of Medicine: Amusing Anecdotes from Hippocrates to Heart Transplants by Richard Gordon.

Realia: bones, medieval surgical instruments, astrological chart… and a glass of lemonade to resemble urine if you want to push the gross envelope!

Food items connected to story: eel, cheese, bread, oatmeal

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