Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Midwife Of Venice by Roberta Rich

I always enjoy reading a novel where a woman is given a chance to show just how strong she is in spirit; shows a remarkable bit of resourcefulness, and enough courage that you have to wonder why anyone would ever think she was "weak".  

Hannah is just this woman in The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich.  It takes place in Venice in 1575.  Jews have fled other parts of Europe and settled in ghettos around Venice.  They were still treated horribly by Christians in Venice, but had some bit of peace.  Hannah lived in the ghetto with her husband, Isaac.  She's a midwife, and is greatly skilled for one so young.  She's got a secret weapon:  birthing spoons she designed to help bring a baby out of the womb.  They're the equivalent of forceps in today's world.  But in 1575, they were thought to be the work of the devil, and if Hannah was ever caught with them, she would be accused of witchcraft.

Isaac's story is told in alternating chapters with Hannah's.  Isaac has set sail to sell goods, but instead his ship was captured and he's a slave on Malta, with only a slim chance of ever getting back to Hannah and Venice.  Hannah knows he's there, thanks to a Jewish society that works to ransom captive Jews in Malta.  The only question is:  can he survive long enough to get home?  Meanwhile, Hannah is called upon late one night to help a noble Christian woman give birth.  She's perilously close to death, and the Comte has come to beg her to help save the child.  It's his only chance to keep all of his wealth before he turns 50 in a few short months.  Jews are forbidden to attend Christian women's birth beds, so Hannah is caught in a dilemma:  Should she break with her Jewish laws--and the laws of Venice--and help this woman?  The Comte will pay her enough money so she can ransom her husband.  It's her only way to free Isaac.  But in agreeing to help the Comte, she is putting the whole Jewish ghetto at risk.  If the Comte's wife dies, along with the child, Hannah and her community will surely be punished.  

This is a quick read, but chock full of historical facts and fascinating scenes from a Venice that is both beautiful and rotten.  The smells of the canals, the stench of the plague, and the simple smell of a newborn baby all combine to weave a rich picture of a fascinating time in Jewish history.  Can Hannah make the right decision?  Will Isaac survive long enough to escape Malta?  Hannah's decisions will alter the course of her life, and set her on a journey fraught with danger and a lot of tense moments.  I really liked Hannah.  She went from a young  woman all alone and lost without her husband, to a courageous woman ready to fight for herself and her husband.  An admirable character, indeed.

This book is great for any Mom or Grandma who likes historical fiction.  I enjoyed reading about Venice in 1575; it was a refreshing change from some of the historical novels I've been reading.  And the rituals of Judaism were also so very interesting to read about--they really did make Hannah's decisions crucial to her well being and her unwavering faith in God.  

Rating:  4/5 .  Quick pace, very likable heroine, and great atmosphere.  

Thanks to Melissa at Simon and Schuster for sending me this book.  It was on my "to be read" list.  

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