Kudos to the Britannia Book Club (one of the perks connected with my recent move) for choosing such an excellent read for March. The Birth House is Ami McKay‘s debut novel and it captures the early 1900’s rural Nova Scotia culture in a thoroughly enchanting manner.
Dora Rare is the narrator/midwife. She begins her story in her late teens when she lived in a household full of boys, with a somewhat indulgent mother, and a father who has become rather uneasy about her unabashed camaraderie with her six brothers. She is, after all, the only girl born to a Rare in 5 generations. Her aunt is involved with the White Rose Temperance Society, has a prim and proper daughter of her own, and objects greatly to her niece being allowed to read what she considers racy literature.
Dora and her mother are among the few friends of Marie Babineau, a Cajun midwife who has wide knowledge and usually accurate premonitions, and remembers clearly the day she delivered Dora Rare — she has always known that Dora would replace her as the only midwife in the small, tight-knit community of Scots Bay. When Dora is 17, Marie scoops her up to assist in the delivery of Experience Ketch’s 12th baby. It is Experience’s eldest son in the wagon with Miss B because her husband Brady is out drinking as usual. Brady is a hard-drinking man who expects everything to be done for him in the house and is more concerned with his own pleasures than about the feelings and well-being of others. Experience is well named. Brady is abusive of her and their children, his daughter Rose in particular whom he sexually abuses himself and pimps out for extra drinking money. Experience takes his abuse in an effort to protect her children but lives in constant fear. Brady haunts Dora throughout the novel.
Dora’s love of reading and joy of “catching” babies entertain throughout the book and the irony of the hypocrisy she uncovers around her (including her strict aunt’s affair with the new vicar) stretches her desire for justice, mercy, and acceptance for all. She begins a weeknight knitting club in her home called the Occasional Knitters Society which gives other women a chance to get out from under their husbands’ thumbs and also protects Dora when her husband, Archer, comes home drunk expecting marital duties. He is an insensitive brute who takes off for months at a time and when the opportunity presents itself for Dora to secretly adopt a child of her own she does so in her calm, competent manner as if it was the most natural thing in the world to have such a secret.
The world of her quiet village is turned upside down, wife against husband, when Dr. Thomas sets up The Canning Maternity Home in a nearby town. Where the local midwife would make a house call, Dr. Thomas expects the labouring mother to make her way down the mountain no matter what the weather and give birth in the maternity home where it is completely sanitized and presumably healthier for both mother and child. They have to pay for the privilege whereas with the midwife, they only had to give what they could spare, often a chicken, eggs, or an exchange of labour. According to Dr. Thomas, “science is exact” and yet he has no experience in delivering babies and the scientific theories of the day, oft quoted from the magazine “Science of New Life” or posters on the doctor’s office, are totally ludicrous in retrospect. When Dr. Thomas tries to have Dora arrested for murder on the word of Brady Ketch, she escapes to Boston where her brother Charlie is working and has found love.
Dora is a gutsy, knowledgeable woman, unafraid to stand up to those she believes wrong, to protect those who are vulnerable, and to work on many levels for women’s rights. She is a tireless worker in helping others and is willing to stand up against convention in order to live life on her own terms. From beginning to end, the characters are engaging, the issues both unbelievable and relevant despite the passage of time. It is not an adventurous, fast-paced story but it is one that captivates from the beginning and demands to be read to the very end. You can read the opening paragraph and a two-line teaser here. I will definitely be reading more books by Ami McKay. * * * * *