Alyce (previously known as Brat and, later, Beetle) is the 12- or 13-year-old (she doesn't know how old she is) protagonist, or main character, of the novel. She is a skinny, pale girl afraid of people and unfamiliar situations and surroundings. Alyce is a dynamic character. She changes during the course of the novel due to her experiences and actions. When the novel begins, Alyce is called Brat. She is homeless. She has no place of her own and she is as poor as anyone can be. She has endured extreme hardships: Her parents abandoned her when she was very young and she has been abused and neglected by people throughout her life (even the midwife kicks her, slaps her, calls her names, and feeds her inadequate amounts of food). She has survived by traveling from village to village, stealing food and working for food or shelter.
Because Alyce has never been rewarded or encouraged, she is unaware that she is a special and unique human being. She experiences feelings of being stupid and unworthy. She is afraid to try anything because she is afraid she will fail. Alyce has no self-confidence. In spite of her low self-esteem and the tormenting and teasing that she tolerates from village bullies, there is an innate goodness about Alyce. In contrast to the midwife, Alyce is compassionate. She adopts a stray cat, names it Purr, and cares for it; she is kind to Will, one of the village bullies; and she gives a homeless boy a name, some food, and tells him where to find work.
When she renames herself "Alyce," her life begins a transformation. She begins to feel a sense of pride and self-respect. After the merchant at the fair gives Alyce a comb and comments on her looks, she peers into a stream and realizes for the first time that she is worthy of love. Alyce begins to tell stories to Purr, sing songs, and smile — things she has never done before. She begins to learn what it feels like to be truly alive.
Alyce, rather than the midwife, is called by a woman in labor to deliver her baby. When she is unable to deliver the baby because it is a complicated birth and has to call for the midwife, she feels like a failure and is ashamed of herself. She runs away with Purr and finds work in an inn not far from the village. There she has time to think and to discover who she really is. Alyce goes to see Edward, the homeless boy she helped, and ends up taking a bath with soap. The bath is a transformation, or rebirth, for Alyce. She emerges a strong girl who knows what she wants to do with her life — and she knows she can do it. She defies her fear and returns to the midwife to become her apprentice once again. Alyce learns to honor herself. She also learns that if she perseveres, she can overcome adversity.
Jane is the only midwife in the village. She assists pregnant women who are in labor by using a combination of herbs, superstition, and common sense. She does her job "with energy and some skill, but without care, compassion, or joy." Jane is a tough and greedy person. She demands high wages for her services because she has no competition — and that is just how she likes it. When she finds Brat in the dung heap, she realizes that she has found cheap labor. She takes Brat — whom she calls Beetle — home with her to work as her servant. Jane is sure that someone who looks as stupid and scared as Beetle will be no competition to her. She allows Beetle to learn about the herbs she uses, but controls Beetle's learning by making her stay outside when she is delivering a baby and by verbally and physically abusing her.
The midwife becomes enraged when a pregnant woman requests Beetle's services and not hers. She accuses Beetle (who is now known as Alyce) of stealing her mothers. The midwife is unaware of the knowledge that Alyce has gleaned from her and she is unaware that the villagers often ask Alyce for advice. Jane doesn't realize how much she depends on Alyce until Alyce runs away.
The midwife goes to the inn where Alyce is working. Speaking to Magister Reese, a guest at the inn, about midwifery, she indirectly tells Alyce that she didn't fail. She tells Magister Reese (knowing full well that Alyce is listening) that she needs an apprentice who will persevere and never give up. In her way, Jane encourages Alyce to be brave. She conveys the message to Alyce that it is better to try and fail — and try again — than to never try at all.
Will is a young red-headed boy who lives in the village. At the beginning of the novel, Will appears to be quite mean. Along with a group of boys, he torments and taunts Beetle every chance he gets. On one occasion, when the boys are drunk, Will falls into the river. Rather than help him, the other boys run off. Alyce (Beetle), who is perched in a tree after running away from the boys, rescues Will. Will thanks her by complimenting her on her bravery. He realizes for the first time that Alyce is a human being with feelings.
As a result of their encounter at the river, Will is reluctant to join the other boys when they harass Alyce. Will again requests Alyce's assistance when his cow is giving birth to calves and can not get out of a pit. Alyce helps Will deliver the calves and Will is grateful to her. He tells people in the village that Alyce brought him luck.
Will, a dynamic character, changes during the course of the novel as a result of his experiences with Alyce. At the conclusion of the novel, when he stops at the Inn with a delivery and sees Alyce, he speaks to her as though she is an old friend. Will has matured and grown up. He sincerely compliments Alyce, tells her she is pretty, and treats her with respect.