Book Review - The Birth House
By Karen Ballum on August 28, 2006
BlogHer Original Post
I thought a lot about what book to review first for BlogHer. The Birth House by Ami McKay, a Canadian book, seemed like a natural choice. I'm Canadian, it's Canadian. It's set in a rural Maritime town, I'm originally from a rural Maritime town. It's about relationships between women, for me the internet has largely been about relationships between women. I've been hearing buzz about this book since it was released, including here at BlogHer, and I've been reading author Ami McKay's blog for months. And I still approach this with trepidation because although The Birth House is available in the US and the UK, it's not yet readily available at libraries in those countries. I really hope it will be easily available to all of you soon, but in the meantime feel free to yell "elusive Canadian book" at me. I'm used to it and I'll try not to do it again if you'll just play along this time (and no I can't send you my copy because it has already been promised to a friend, I'm sorry).
My house stands at the edge of the earth. Together, the house and I have held strong against the churning tides of Fundy. Two sisters, stubborn in our bones.
The Birth House takes place in the small shipbuilding village of Scot's Bay, Nova Scotia. Dora Rare is the daughter of a shipbuilder and the first Rare daughter in five generations. During her girlhood Dora forges a friendship with the local midwife, Marie Babineau. As she matures she starts to accompany Miss B. to local births and without realizing it she has begun her training in midwifery. Miss B. knows her time is waning and she asks Dora to become her successor. It's a daunting idea. Dora sees how Miss B. is shunned by others in the village. She sees how they come to her in need when they need her services and then turn their backs on her when their children are grown. She sees how people call her a witch even though they have used her medicine to cure themselves and their children. She's also seen the entry of Dr. Thomas into the community. Dr. Thomas has decided that he will bring the women of Scot's Bay into the 20th century by opening a maternity home and it seems that there may not be a need for midwife services much longer. Ultimately Dora and her family decide that she doesn't have any other options.
I don't know that I'll ever have her kind of wisdom, or the courage it takes to live like her - to be given such little respect, to be alone. I'm scared of what it means to take a step, any step, that's not in the direction I dreamed I'd go.
Not long after Dora moves into Miss B's house she finds herself with a proposal of marriage. She struggles with whether or not to accept it but in the end decides it would be too much to give up. With the maternity home open and most of the town having bought a Women's Share in it she has no problem telling her fiance that she'll give up midwifery when they are married. Then on her wedding night Miss B. disappears and Dora finds herself the only local midwife. She soon finds herself struggling with a difficult marriage as well. She gains a strength she didn't know from within herself and from her circle of female friends. While this is the story of Dora Rare and a tribute to midwives, it's also a story of community - women's communities. When the bonds that hold women together are bent and broken, when they allow someone to convince them that there is something "wrong" with their community, their foundations crumble to dust. But when women band together for themselves they stand as strong as Dora's house "strong, stubborn sisters" and they can change their world. I really do recommend this book and in all honesty, it's not often that I wholeheartedly recommend books. I'll usually say that if you like "insert book name/genre here" you'll probably enjoy this one. But I sat down to read this weekend and suddenly it was three hours and a few hundred pages later. I was totally taken in with the story. I loved the newspaper clippings, diary entries and period advertisements tucked in among the paragraphs (I particularly loved the "Vibration is Life" hysteria treatment ad). I could add a dozen more quotations from the book to this review but part of the joy of a book is discovering those gems on your own. Now if I've peaked your interest and you're ready to yell at me because you can't find a copy in your local library I have something for you to do to take the edge off. Head over to The Birth House website and take the hysteria quiz to find out what treatment you should take. - - - - - Photo credit: Harper-Collin's page on The Birth House. Quotations taken from the Knopf Canada 2006 hardcover edition, pages vii and 76 respectively.
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