In the Middle Ages, fourteen-year-old Matilda, the orphaned daughter of a local Lord’s clerk, grows up in the manor house, living “somewhere between servants and those they served.” She can read and write, and is taught Latin, French and Greek. Father Leufredus, her tutor, teaches her of the saints, to be meek and obedient, and to be wary of the evil in the world. When the story opens, Father Leufredus is on his way to London and drops Matilda at Blood and Bone Alley to begin her new life as the bonesetter’s helper.
Needless to say, Matilda doesn’t have a clue about what she’s about to encounter. All she knows is book learning and relative ease of living. Peg, the bonesetter, is surprised to find that her new helper doesn’t know how to make a fire, go to the market, or cook. But despite Matilda’s resistance, Peg begins the process of teaching her how to set broken bones, make ointments and tonics, and ease arthritic pain.
Matilda is a classic “fish out of water” character. Some readers have had trouble with Matilda’s tendency to look down on the simple ways of the people around her, referring to her as a snob. But I think she’s an authentic character—her actions and feelings are based on what she’s been taught all her life. She truly doesn’t know any better.
As Matilda meets more people and even makes friends, she slowly learns to trust the knowledge that she sees in the common folk and to understand that the best method of accomplishing something doesn’t have to come from a book.
Author Karen Cushman does a wonderful job filling Matilda Bone with both colorful and realistic characters who experience laughter and joy despite the harshness of their lives. The story shows a picture of medieval medicine that makes me extremely glad I didn’t live during that time period.
I recommend this story for anyone who loves a medieval setting for fiction. Be prepared to have patience with Matilda. After all, most of us can remember times when we were slow to learn from others.