The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman is a historical novel set in West Virginia in 1930. The Depression has just started, and the people of Hope River are feeling the effects more than many other places: the coal mines are shutting down, and people are losing businesses and homes every day. Poor becomes destitute. But babies still keep coming along, and that's where Patience Murphy steps in. She's the midwife for those women who can't afford to go to a hospital (which is the majority) or won't go to a hospital. Having a baby at home is, for most, the only way--and a midwife is crucial for the safe delivery of the child and the health of the mother. Patience is fairly new to midwifery; she's only been on her own for a short time, ever since Mrs. Kelly, the former midwife died. Patience is a smart woman and learns quickly.
Patience has a background that sounds like a soap opera--it went from bad to worse, and this is sprinkled in throughout the novel. I found it a bit confusing at first to have these throwbacks to Patience's past, but I soon got the hang of the rhythm of the story and understood these episodes explained much about Patience and why she ended up in Hope River. Being a midwife in 1930's West Virginia is fraught with danger--she is forbidden to "examine" a woman in labor--she can get arrested. And because of her past, the last thing Patience wants to do is call attention to herself.
But as Patience attends more births, and brings along her new assistant--a young black woman named Bitsy--her reputation as a trusted midwife grows. There are people around who don't like that she's taking care of both the black folks and the white folks, and the poor coal miners scattered around Hope River. Add in rumblings of the KKK in the area, and it's a recipe for trouble.
There is some hope for Patience, though. The local vet, Dr. Hester, lives a few miles down the road, and they soon develop a friendship--could it lead to happiness for both of them?
I did like this novel. It was gritty, full of medical information about midwifery and early 20th century rural medicine, and had a main character who grew in strength and confidence as the novel progressed. The author's experience as a midwife in West Virginia certainly gave this novel an extra boost of authenticity. If you liked The Birth House by Ami McKay, you should pick this one up!
Rating: 4/5 for setting, character development, and midwifery information. A well written novel about people struggling to find their place in the world.
Available as a paperback or an e book in your local bookstore.