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Literature / Catherine, Called Birdy

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Catherine, Called Birdy is a young adult novel by Karen Cushman.

The eponymous Catherine is a headstrong teenage girl living in the Middle Ages. As the daughter of a lord, she is expected to lead the life of a proper young lady of the time. However, Catherine is reluctant to pursue embroidery and household chores, and finds herself rebelling against her parents' and society's expectations of her.

The book is narrated through Catherine's journal entries, spanning about a year. From the beginning, much of the conflict centers on Catherine's family's attempt to find her a suitable husband. This is easier said than done, as Catherine does not wish to marry anyone in particular and frequently goes to great length to drive her suitors away. However, this strategy backfires on her when the one man who is not repulsed by her behavior turns out to be a loud, coarse idiot. Now caught in a terrible engagement, Catherine does all she can to escape, eventually running away from her home to stay with her aunt. In the end, though, Catherine realizes that she is better off simply facing her fate bravely than running all of her life, and she returns home. Much to her pleased surprise, it turns out that her fiancé has died in her absence, and she is now set to marry his son—a young man who, though they know very little of each other, seems to be a pleasant and intelligent fellow.

While the main plot revolves around the marriage issue, Catherine's journal entries cover many other aspects of her life, and chronicle her personal development. Through the course of the book, Catherine reflects on religion, goes through various crises with her family and friends, and begins to develop a talent for painting.

Even though Catherine has not truly freed herself by the end of the book, she has learned to reconcile her own personality with her duties to her family and society, in a sharp contrast to the arrogant and impractical girl she was at the start of the story.

A beloved staple of middle school bookshelves everywhere, Catherine Called Birdy is a charming and entertaining story with a witty heroine and a unique look at daily life during the Middle Ages.

The novel was adapted to film in 2022 with Bella Ramsey as Birdy — for tropes on the adaptation, see Catherine Called Birdy (2022).

Contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: "Shaggy Beard" (a.k.a. "the pig"), Catherine's arranged husband.
    • To Catherine, all of her suitors are like this, although to a lesser extent. Especially young Fulk, who is disgustingly fat.
  • Abusive Parents: Her father often hits her, but she's pretty dismissive of it when she writes about it. The only people he never hits are his wife and Morwenna, Catherine's nurse (who was also his wife's nurse, hence why she's safe).
  • All-Natural Fire Extinguisher: Catherine mentions her father pissing out a fire that had spread to the rushes covering the floor during a rowdy banquet.
    My father, the genius, pulled down his breeches and put out most of the fire.
  • Animal Motifs: As the title would suggest, birds. In one entry, Catherine compares all the people in her life to various birds (she thinks that she herself is a goose, being "stubborn, plain, and shortsighted".)
  • Arranged Marriage: Catherine does not want to get married this way at all in the beginning. However, she learns to come to terms with this.
    • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Shaggy Beard's son Stephen, who inherits the betrothal after his father is killed in a brawl.
      • Aelis also seems pleased by being betrothed to Catherine's brother Robert — something that mystifies Catherine, as he's always seemed to be a Jerkass. This is after he's done something kind for her, though, so she finds herself re-evaluating him.note 
      • Her father might be a Jerkass, but he and her mother do seem to be happily married (though it's notable that her mother is literally the only person he's not a jerkass to).
  • Bittersweet Ending: Summed up best in a single line. "I am, if not free, at least less painfully caged."
  • Blind Without 'Em: Catherine mentions her 'weak eyes' several times. Of course at that point there were no such things as corrective lenses, so she just lives with having to squint all the timenote 
  • Bookworm: Insofar as she can be. Her brother Edward taught her to read (unusual for women of the time), and when her mother is given a book about the lives of the saints, Catherine basically steals it.
  • Brainless Beauty: Catherine thinks her mother is a mild variant; when describing the people in her life as birds, she thinks of her mother as a dove, pretty but a little vain and not as intelligent
    • Aelis pretends to be this, but in reality is as snarky and intelligent as Catherine. Catherine considers her "a dove on the outside, but a hawk within."
  • Brainy Brunette: Catherine is intelligent and well-educated for the time period (literacy was not common, and it was even more rare among women), and has brown hair.
  • Briar Patching: Perkin, the goat-boy, pays the yearly rent on his grandmother's cottage with a goat. In the preceding weeks before the rent is due, he will tell people that he will give up any goat except a certain one for the rent. When it comes time to pay, Catherine's father will insist on being given that goat, thinking that he's gotten the best of Perkin. Each time, it turns out that the particular goat is either the meanest or smelliest one of the flock, or the one that will try to eat the laundry.
  • Brick Joke: In one journal entry, Catherine mentions a "Saint of Worms" and wonders why of all animals, worms would need their own saint. Many journal entries later she writes "Odd William says Worms is a place."
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Odd William, called such because he's the third William in the area and they needed a way to differentiate them. Catherine briefly admires his apparent "wisdom", but her opinion twists when he callously refuses to help with her mother's labor.
    • Her aunt Ethelfritha, who was struck by lightning as a young woman and occasionally forgets who she is (at one point, she spends a day thinking she's a sausage.)
  • Curse of The Ancients: Catherine spends a while trying to think of a unique way to curse; eventually she settles on "God's thumbs!"
  • Deadpan Snarker: Catherine in spades, especially her descriptions of her assorted unwanted suitors.
  • Death by Childbirth: Almost. Her mother had five miscarriages before successfully bringing Catherine's younger sister to term, but very nearly dies giving birth.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: A lot, given the book's setting. Abusive Parents treated as normal, forcible marriages arranged for thirteen-year-old girls, etc. During that time period, it was all perfectly normal and acceptable, but seen from a modern viewpoint it can be kind of horrifying. That's part of the point. There's also the fact that her thirty-something mother is considered old; in the 13th century, she'd be well into middle-age.note 
  • Epistolary Novel: The book is written in the form of Catherine's diary, which her brother (who is a monk, and who is the one who taught her to read and write) wishes her to write in to make her "wiser and more learned." Her mother isn't thrilled by the idea, but goes along with it to please her son.
  • Eskimos Aren't Real: Birdy's uncle comes back from the Crusades and tells them about all the wonderful things he's seen, like gryphons and unicorns and something called "an elephant, with a tail at each end". Birdy thinks he's making that last one up.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Catherine's parents got married three days after they met. Surprisingly, it seems to have actually worked out.
  • Hidden Depths: A subtle example. Catherine considers her mother to be a Brainless Beauty, but it is her mother who sees past the anti-semitism that was common in those days and gives shelter to a displaced Jewish community while her father is gone; even Catherine herself seems to have bought into the contemporary slander about Jews that was common in those days.
  • Incest Subtext: Catherine has a mild crush on her uncle George. Made a bit more understandable by the fact that she's never seen him before he moves in, so she doesn't count him as much of a relative.
  • Insult to Rocks: About Shaggy Beard- "The man was a pig, which dishonors pigs."
  • Jabba Table Manners: Catherine writes about how disgusting Shaggy Beard is when eating and how she goes without wine during meals because sharing a goblet with him would mean having to deal with all the bits and crumbs he washes back into it.
  • Jerkass: Catherine's father. Also Geoffrey, the boy who briefly fosters at the manor.
    • Catherine has her moments of this too, particularly towards the beginning of the book.
  • Known Only by Their Nickname: Catherine refuses to refer to her fiance as anything but Shaggy Beard.
  • Nausea Fuel: Catherine finds Shaggy Beard to be this in-universe; she writes that the sight of him "turned her stomach like maggoty meat."
  • No Periods, Period: Averted. She mentions her lack of one as proof she's not ready to be anyone's wife.
  • Plucky Girl: Catherine is spirited and strongly dislikes the social conventions of her time. She uses her pluckiness to sabotage many of her suitors' proposals.
  • The Prankster: Catherine displays this as many of her actions towards her suitors come off as pranks. For example, she tells one suitor that her family is rich so he will embarrass himself in front of her father.
  • Rebellious Lady: The titular Catherine.
  • Runaway Hideaway: On the eve of what's supposed to be her leaving for her wedding to Shaggy Beard, Catherine runs away to her uncle George's home. He's away, but her aunt takes her in and takes care of her until she realizes it's her duty to go home.
  • Snipe Hunt: Catherine does this every April Fool's Day, such as asking her nurse Morwenna to help her gather hen's teeth, but none of the people she tries this on fall for it.
  • Unlucky Childhood Friend: Perkin may or may not like Catherine , but she marries Shaggy Beard's son Stephen.
  • The Upper Crass: Catherine's father, whose table manners are so terrible they put off one of her potential suitors, who, despite being favorably impressed with her, was so offended by his "burping, farting, and scratching his chest with his knife" that he left without a betrothal. She writes that it's nice to know she has her father's "beastliness" as well as his greed to drive away unwanted husbands (one earlier suitor wound up hit in the head with a chamber pot when he brought up the subject of a dowry).
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: She puts on some of her brother's old clothes when she wants to go past her village without being recognized.
  • Worst Aid: Inevitable, given the abysmal state of medical knowledge in the 13th century; at that point, the only 'doctor' most country people saw was the lady of the manor, who would consult her family's book of remedies. Mention is made of treating "inflammation of the eyes" with garlic (there isn't any "mother's milk" necessary for the normal treatment, so instead Catherine uses the same remedy she used on her nurse's boils the week before), and one unfortunate man has an infected wound packed with cobwebs. Unsurprisingly, he dies.