"The Birth House"

The Birth House by Ami McKay

Dora Rare is the first female born into her family in five generations. That, and having been born with a caul over her face, makes her the subject of gossip in the small community of Scot's Bay and an easy target for pointing fingers when any trouble befalls it's inhabitants.

Miss B. (Marie Babineau) is the local midwife and herbalist. She assists women through pregnancy and delivery, marital problems and sick children. She offers her services free of charge, opening her home to any woman who needs a place of refuge, but once they are no longer in need of her services the women tend to distance themselves from her and her sometimes strange ways.

While Dora is still a young girl, Miss B recognizes the kindred spirit in her and takes her on as an apprentice to learn the arts of healing and midwifery. They face a lot of opposition from the local physician who sees them as doing more harm than good and wants to shut them down. His interest in bringing modern medicine to Nova Scotia is strengthened by his interest in the fees he is hoping to receive for his services.

This book addresses the struggles of women to be autonomous and have control over what happens to their own bodies. It paints a picture that is both harsh and beautiful, looking at a broad spectrum of women from the strong and independent to those who are no more than slaves in abusive marriages. It makes a strong statement about a woman's need for female friendships and support. It is also emphatically pro-choice. Pregnancies are terminated based on the hardship it causes the mother and though the sheer desperation of some of these women is agonizing, I still can't get past the fact that to make one life more bearable, another life has to be ended. As a woman I find myself rooting for wives and mothers whose lives are unbelievably hard and being happy for them when things finally get easier, then as a Christian I sometimes get that uncomfortable feeling that I'm applauding things God doesn't call good. These are not easy issues but they do make me take stock of who I am and what I believe.  

The healing arts that Miss B and Dora practice are an eerie mixture of Mary-worship, superstition, future foretelling and herbal medicine. The "Willow Book" contains all the wisdom of their trade. It prescribes things like this: "Moonbath: Lie naked in a crossroads in the light of a full moon. Makes the womb ripe." Some of it is silliness, some of it seems more like the witchcraft of tv shows and movies.

 I will confess I don't like the messy aspects of being human so that part of the book was not enjoyable for me. When my children were babies I loved holding them and playing with them but I did not at all enjoy the drool, snot, vomit and other bodily function messes. Because this book tells a lot of pregnancy stories, there is blood, etc, and there was too much of it for me.

I thought Birth House was well written and I loved the setting of Scot's Bay, Nova Scotia. The glimpse into life in that time and place was wonderful but it wasn't enough to make me like the book so I can't recommend it. 


Shelleyrae said...

This sounds a lot like The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman which I enjoyed. The era's are similar but the setting is in the Appalachia's. I like the sounds of this one as well!

Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

bibliophiliac said...

Thanks for your review. I think I will try to get this book, because it sounds like one I will like. The Nova Scotia setting sounds interesting too...

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