Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Birth House - Ami McKay [June/06]

This book is getting lots of attention in the town that I live in because it is written by a local author and takes place not far from where I live. I wanted to read it so bad that I bought it in hardcover, but it was 40 per cent off, so a good deal. From the front flap:

The Birth House is the story of Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born in five generations of Rares. 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 first years of World War I, Dora becomes the midwife's apprentice. Together they help the women of Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labours, 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, many in the community begin to question Miss Babineau's methods. After the death of Miss Babineau, Dora is left to carry on alone. In the face of fierce opposition, she must summon all her strength and fight to protect the birthing traditions and women's 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 have control of their own bodies and to keep the best parts of traditions alive in the world of modern medicine.
I have a signed copy of this novel, which is an added plus to the fact that I found it so interesting. When you are reading this novel you can feel that you are living during World War I and the surrounding years. The world has gone through many changes and the Halifax Explosion aids in changing things further. I read somewhere that the reason that McKay wrote this book was because she bought a house in Scots Bay and learned that it used to be used as a birthing house. With that in mind, she researched the history of both the area that she was living in and the house that she owned, and she came up with the story of Dora Rare.

For many years, women were the doctors of the small communities. They were the ones that brought the babies into the world and looked after those same babies when they were sick. But, in a man's world, it was not long before they believed that women should not even have that priviledge. You see the scenes in the maternity hospital where the woman doesn't even have the baby. She is drugged up and cut open and that is her birth. They are left with no memory of having the baby. Quite different from when the midwives do it, there are clear scenes of a child being born in this book under natural circumstances. Women grow to fear the doctor and his 'ways'.

Dora Rare is scared of being different, so at first she attempts to avoid the midwiving practice, but it was meant for her and soon she can not avoid it. Bad things happen, though, when the doctor attempts to close her out by joining up with some of the men of the village and trying to get their women folk to go with the modern methods. But the women rise up. Despite the fact there are scenes where the women are the submissive types of the time, they have their perks and are capable of getting what needs to be done, done. This is not a edge of your seat novel, but it is very enjoyable even if you do not live where it takes place.



  1. I saw a good review for this in the Winnipeg Free Press. It sounds like a good feminist novel-men trying to change the ways of women (for their profit) and women (eventually) telling them to shove off.

  2. It was really good, well worth the hardcover price!


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