Title: The Birth House
Author: Ami McKay
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Purchased (Paperback)
The Birth House is the story of Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born in five generations of the Rare family. As a child in an isolated village in Nova Scotia, she is drawn to Miss Babineau, an outspoken Acadian midwife with a gift for healing and a kitchen filled with herbs and folk remedies. During the turbulent years of World War I, Dora becomes the midwife’s apprentice. Together, they help the women of Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labors, breech births, unwanted pregnancies and even unfulfilling sex lives.
When Gilbert Thomas, a brash medical doctor, comes to Scots Bay with promises of fast, painless childbirth, some of the women begin to question Miss Babineau’s methods – and after Miss Babineau’s death, Dora is left to carry on alone. In the face of fierce opposition, she must summon all of her strength to protect the birthing traditions and wisdom that have been passed down to her.
Filled with details that are as compelling as they are surprising-childbirth in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion, the prescribing of vibratory treatments to cure hysteria and a mysterious elixir called Beaver Brew- The Birth House is an unforgettable tale of the struggles women have faced to maintain control over their own bodies and to keep the best parts of tradition alive in the world of modern medicine.
I kind of love Ami McKay. When it comes to Canadian authors, I think she is one of Canada’s treasures — her books are just THAT good. So good that when I finished this one — a book that had been on my shelf FOREVER (I read her newest book before even reading this one — that’s how long it’s been on my shelf) — I needed more. I was so sad that I had read all of her books! I guess that just means I’ll be wishing that she releases something new — ASAP!
Anyway, I read this book late last year while I was pregnant (yup — and I scheduled this post!) and was initially QUITE nervous to read it. I mean, it’s a book that deals heavily with pregnant women and birthing and all that jazz. I expected to be terrified and full of anxiety while reading it.
But it’s not written in a scary way. In fact, part of me wished I had someone like Mrs. B or Dora in my life for the birth of my own child. The art of midwifery is just that — an art. I love how the book really brings forth what was going on during that time, with women accepting midwives when it came to female ailments and childbirth, but that the men of society seemed against it (well, some at least) because there was no science to it. It was hard to believe that people like Mrs. B or Dora could be accused of witchcraft because they used natural means to help and heal, rather than immediately thinking that science has the answer. Sometimes a woman’s intuition is enough.
I was fascinated by this book. I had started it before bed one night and thought I would never get through it. It’s close to 400 pages and I had been getting my fair share of YA novels in, so a Canadian Literature book seemed daunting to me. However, Ami writes in such a way that it’s just that easy to get sucked into her writing and into the world she puts forth. I felt like I was there, witnessing what was going on around the main character, Dora. I felt her pain, I could feel her fears, and I could definitely feel the elation when a baby was born.
I also have to say something about the characters in this story. The women were FIERCE. Their strength should be enough to let them make a mark on the town, but sometimes it just wasn’t enough. While the women were amazing, some of the men just couldn’t see it. There were times where I found myself cringing as I read because of the attitudes of some of the male population. Though I did like that not ALL the males were against the women and their beliefs — there were some real keepers in the story!
I had also thought that the book would span generations, but we’re really only let into a year or so of Dora’s life. And it’s quite amazing how much she grows as a character in such a short amount of time. And the doctor? Oh. My. Gosh. I was so scared of him! To live in a period like that where the idea of a local obstetrician is such a new thing was terrifying. I had actually seen the movie Hysteria about the way to treat women with certain … ahem … ailments and it was nice to be familiar with the time period through that. I know that people thought they were really moving ahead in medicine, but some things just seemed so silly. Of course, the best thing to do would be to just label a woman as crazy.
When I was close to finishing the story, I had to think about how in times of emergency, it was always about saving the women and children — and then Ami (well, Dora) brings up that very sentence. It really was a great way to try and bridge the gap between the sexes. I finished the story feeling completely satisfied and so happy that I had finally given the story a go. Ami McKay will definitely remain up there in the ranks of my favourite Canadian authors — or, really, just my favourite authors. I can’t wait to see what she brings to her readers next.