Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Birth House by Ami McKay

The Birth House by Ami McKay was recommended to me by a fellow co-worker.  I'm glad I listened to her!

The Birth House was a refreshing change from some of the novels I've been reading lately.  It takes place in the small town of Scots Bay, Nova Scotia in 1917.  Miss B. is the town midwife, who's schooled not only in the arts of midwifery, but healing with herbs and potions.  People revere her, yet whisper she's a witch, too.

Dora Rare is the first daughter in five generations to be born to the Dare family.  Her unusual dark coloring, being born with a caul over her face, and her intelligent nature mark her as "odd" by the community.  She is taken under the wing of Miss B, and soon is learning about midwifery and how to treat the town's ills.

Dora's story takes place during World War I, which forms a backdrop to the story.  Her brothers and other men from town go to fight, and through letters and newspaper articles, we learn what's going on not only with her brothers, but also with Dora.  She's challenged by a medical doctor, who opens a women's birthing clinic in a nearby town, and sets out to convince the women of Scots Bay to have him deliver their babies away from home and with ether and forceps.  It's the new way--no pain for the mother.  Isn't that so much better than suffering at home, with an uneducated midwife helping you along?

I really liked the historical background of this novel.  Dora struggles through a major change in women's reproductive rights.  The worlds of science and old fashioned medicine clash, and Dora's in the middle.  Women are marching for the right to vote, and the right to determine their choices to make as mothers.  At the same time, Dora is being pushed to marry someone she doesn't really love, and retire to a life of domesticity and childbearing.  What about women's "hysterics?"  Nothing that a medical doctor with an electric machine can't solve.  It's laughable now that people, particularly men, believed women needed to stay calm and quiet, and any sign of rebellion was a sign that their nerves were on edge and science needed to save them.

The Birth House  is a great novel for anyone who's interested in the struggle for women's rights, World War I, and the slowly disappearing life of a small town in the advancement of technology and science.  I really enjoyed it!  And you will love Dora Rare.

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