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The Birth House

3.98  ·  Rating Details  ·  28,817 Ratings  ·  2,164 Reviews
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 apprent ...more
Paperback, 408 pages
Published March 6th 2007 by Vintage Canada (first published February 14th 2006)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Sep 02, 2008 Lucy rated it it was ok
I should have known better than to read this. One thing I am not is pro-home birth. I'm not anti- home birth, but the more I read about the "exquisite, spiritual, satisfying" birthing of their babies, the more turned off I am by the usually-not-said-but-rather-implied understanding that any other kind of birth is not.

I know it's not true. Birthing a child is exciting and scary and hard and wonderful and one of the most memorable things any woman will do in her lifetime. But, the variety in whic
Jul 07, 2008 Sarah rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2008-reads
"What can I do with all this neat feminist lore that women have just GOT to hear, like mercenary doctors wresting childbirth away from women and vibrators being the first electric appliance and Boston suffragettes who were also, get this, lesbians and herbal remedies that people are embracing again? I know, I'll write a novel and set it in the quaint town I just moved to and that I love love love."

Awwww, it was mean of me to pretend Ami McKay actually said that out loud ever, because as far as
May 09, 2008 Christi rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Christi by: Maryann
Shelves: 2008-reads
I really loved this book. It was so well-written and a very fast read.

I was a little more than skeptical given the subject matter since I really hated The Red Tent, I don't want children and I'm a believer in hospitals, modern medicine and clinical trials over "natural" remedies.

Luckily, this book wasn't overly preachy or whiny at all. Yes, the author did set up the physician to be a complete villain to better illustrate her good = the old ways, bad = the modern ways. Seriously, given the geog
I found the premise interesting, but the execution flawed. Dora's ostracism from the rest of the town felt like the author telling the audience that she was just too special for the others to understand, and that taken with the slut-shaming of Grace Hutner made it difficult for me to sympathize. Dora was also a very passive character, and while in come circumstances it made sense, she seemed to drift through the novel on other characters' steam. I also felt that McKay tried to cram too much into ...more
Sep 25, 2007 Joanie rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book. The writing was so good I found myself wanting to read slowly so I could really pay attention to her descriptions and use of language. The book is set in the early 1900s in Canada during WWI. The main character, Dora is an apprentice midwife during a time when an obstetrical center has just opened nearby and the big push is for the end of home births and midwives. The women of the town fight for their right to be involved in the birthing process. The book also has a s ...more
Sep 25, 2007 Cheryl rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone
Shelves: nonfiction, fiction
The Birth House by Ami McKay / William Morrow / 13-978-0-016 / 400pps / $24.95

When Ami McKay and her husband bought an old farm house in Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, she had no idea the history she would peel away from the walls or dig up in her yard. Removing layers of wall paper revealed plastered newspapers, tilling her soil unearthed bottle shards, and becoming pregnant led her to a midwife who related what she knew of the World War 1 village midwife that had once inhabited her very home. Throug
Aug 15, 2010 Emily rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I thought this was an interesting light read and I had fun with it.

Now to make myself hated just a little, I have to disagree with the reviewers who complained about the "confusing" combination of narration, letters, and diary entries. I thought that the arrangement was easy enough for a junior high graduate to follow. The letters and diary entries were dated, after all, and with the exception of the first . My apologies to those who disagree, but maybe you should try a book with smaller words i
Jan 22, 2008 Kelly rated it really liked it
A real treat to read, and an unexpected treat at that. Found it at B & N on the Discover New Authors shelf and took a chance. Glad I did. This is the story of a midwife in Nova Scotia who finds herself in the middle of being part of the old way of doing things vs. the new way when a medical doctor establishes a women's hospital in a nearby town. But more that that, this is also a story of the connection between women in a male-driven society. The author paints the landscape so effectively yo ...more
Feb 22, 2011 Annette rated it did not like it
This book definitely has some charms - chiefly the idea of the eponymous birth house itself, which really existed.

However, the writing is heavy handed, and the characters caricatural. The heroine is perfectly modern in attitude and character (feminist! pacifist! rebel against the medical establishment! non-homophobe! respectful of people who engage in sex-work! etc.) despite living in a small town in the early twentieth century. This would be interesting if the book explored how she came by thos
Jan 08, 2008 Jennifer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jennifer by: my book group chose it
Shelves: book-club
What I found interesting about this book it pits science against religion, and I ended up rooting for religion-mainly because it's presented as a refreshing mix of open-mindedness with a splash of mysticism and intuition, instead of the more over used portrayal of religion equaling ignorance. It starts an interesting debate in favor of midwives over doctors, mostly because the doctor in this novel is really just in it for the money, so he can easily be turned into a villain (therefore science in ...more
This is a solid 3-stars, and I would recommend this to certain people.

This is not a masterpiece and it does not have an amazing storyline (See below), but it is a nice read for a rainy day, and it has enough going for it that I enjoyed it (and finished it within 24hours of starting). I won't say that I couldn't put it down, just that I was happy to keep reading.

The storyline is basic and typical of this style of book. Take a beautiful and intelligent woman in a backward-township. Give her some k
Chris Godwaldt
Jan 20, 2011 Chris Godwaldt rated it it was amazing
Shelves: cdn-fiction, fiction
Wow. What did I think indeed!
Thoroughly enjoyed.
McKay weaves a beautiful, haunting story of life on the Bay of Fundy right around the time of WWI. Her ability to carefully craft character development and plot made for an irresistible read that had me feeling a full range of emotion and constantly turning the page for the next bit of story.
Written from the perspective of pre-suffrage women in a small east-coast community, the range of characters were fascinating to observe and even through the g
Nov 04, 2014 A.J. rated it it was ok
I liked the setting of the book and the interspersed newspaper advertisements of the time but wasn't so keen on the storytelling. To me it felt as though the author had thrown everything she knew about the era into the book without much feeling for whether it actually needed it. So we find the First World War, the Halifax Explosion, Spanish Flu and the Boston molasses disaster all featuring, but curiously briefly and without full engagement with any of them.

Dora seemed anachronistic: a woman of
Sharon Huether
Jul 14, 2014 Sharon Huether rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: historical-novel
The Birth House .Ami McKay.. The author was inspired to write this story from the home she lives in. Located in Nova Scotia; which was a birth house many years before. In that period of time between 1910 - 1920 women preferred a mid wife to a male Dr. The midwife used many holistic remedies where as the Dr. used chloroform and forcepts in his deliveries. Dora the midwife had to crusade for the rights of women. At the end of the story they ran the male Dr. out of town, and Dora's home becam ...more
Elisabeth Stones
Jun 14, 2016 Elisabeth Stones rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Nova Scotians, mother, knitters, and lovers of herbal woo
What a book! I can see why it made the ripples it did in the Canadian fiction scene a few years back. For whatever reason I ended up reading a different McKay novel first -- the Virgin Cure -- and that book was so compelling that I found myself hiding in a bedroom at a holiday party reading, unable to put it down.

This book is obviously a sister to that one, and McKay's enthusiasm for the women of early 20th century North America again shines through. Being a transplant to Nova Scotia since 2005,
Kathleen Valentine
Jul 06, 2013 Kathleen Valentine rated it it was amazing
The Birth House was an unexpected delight, not only because of the setting, a remote coastal village in Nova Scotia, but because of two extraordinary characters, Dora Rare, the apprentice midwife, and Madame Babineau, her Acadian teacher. In many ways the book reminded me of Eva Figes' beautiful book, The Seven Ages, which is now just about impossible to find. It deals with the reality of women's lives in a rural area in the early part of the twentieth century. The characters are entirely believ ...more
Nov 22, 2012 Elli rated it it was amazing
This was a great read! Set in a more remote part of Nova Scotia in the early part of last century. The family of Judah Rare were part of a group of Scottish immigrants who came because of being storm blown off course in the Scots Bay area during the last half of the 19th century, and stayed. The family was known to only have sons, except for Dora who in some ways might have been more like a boy should be at that time (and the story is set with all the mores and issues of that period of time, and ...more
May 05, 2008 Paula rated it really liked it
Shelves: book-club
This book was so good that I read it in a single day. I was completely captivated by the story, and even though I pretty much could see where it was going it didn't feel contrived at all. Beautifully told, and very thought-provoking.

The only reason I rated this down is because at times the narrative gets confused with the diary entries that are incorporated into the story; sometimes I got confused about what was going on in the literary present and what had happened in the past, what was actuall
Megan Baxter
May 19, 2014 Megan Baxter rated it really liked it
Mark this down as another book that I quite enjoyed, but didn't quite love. Something kept me a bit separated from the story, kept me from falling head over heels for the characters (although the "women from away" stole my heart quite a bit.) It felt at times like I could see the story engine grinding too much behind the scenes, could see the way things were going to go.

Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the recent changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read wh
May 27, 2013 Steve rated it it was amazing
A wonderful depiction of the gentle arts of midwifery under attack by an outrageously patronizing and paternalistic obstetrician trying to promote his "new modern methods" involving rendering women unconscious at the birth of there own babies and painting that gentle art as medieval witchery. The sad part is that many women buy this fluff.
Full of amazing characters and centered around Dora Hare, the only girl born in their family in five generations, who is apprenticed to Miss B, a loving, wise
Nadine Hiemstra
This was a really fascinating look into healthcare in the early 20th century and the tension between the more traditional ritual and herbal based local healing women and the advancement of modern medical healthcare. Dora, who begins training as a midwife and healer under mysterious Miss B., is caught directly in the crossfire as a hospital for maternal care and obstetrics is set up in a neighbouring town and the new doctor sets his sights on eliminating the "dangerous" practice of home births.

May 12, 2015 Richard rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2015
Certainly among the best books I have read this year. Character description and development is superb. I feel as if I have known the characters of Scots Bay all my life. The descriptions of Nova Scotia life circa WW1 brings reality to this fictional story, particularly with reference to the Halifax explosion. I love the strong female characters, especially the protagonist, Dora Rare, though, there is nothing rare about a strong woman. The conflict between modern medicine and midwifery, or, as th ...more
Laura Negraeff
Feb 02, 2015 Laura Negraeff rated it it was amazing
An absolutely beautiful story about women and the love & strength that is shared among them. "Every woman needs a sanctuary" was a line that resonated with me &, in my opinion, succinctly captures the essence of this story.

As someone who has had two very medicalized births, I never felt defensive like many other reviewers who felt this was a story about shaming women and advocating for "natural" childbirth. I read the tension as a calling out of the patriarchy and a recognition that chi
Aug 05, 2011 Jenny rated it it was amazing
I truly enjoyed this book. It is a great story for introducing the struggles of midwives at the turn of the last century, when "modern" medicine was maneuvering into acceptance. "The Birth House" especially describes the tension between the women and their families well as they struggle with the changing worldview, and their own native intelligence about what is best for their bodies and their unborn children. In the years that have passed, that struggle has dimmed for most women as they have ac ...more
Sarah Kalaitzidis
May 02, 2012 Sarah Kalaitzidis rated it it was amazing
Review by Cassandra Halikas

'The Birth House' follows the life of Dora Rare, the first girl born in five generations of Rares. Dora is the fourth of seven children (Albert, Borden, Charlie, Dora, Ezekiel, Forest and Gord) and often struggles with being a lady around six brothers. Dora's often called a witch, or changling, due to being the only Rare girl. The book mainly follows Dora between 1916-1918, between her being 17 and 19 but does touch on her childhood and her adult life. She and her fami
Jul 15, 2011 Kay rated it it was amazing
Since I bought this the first month it came out, I have read it multiple times, and I am likely to read it again.
Ami McKay paints a picture of a time when midwives were the most called upon form of doctor, not just for childbirth, but for all of the other everyday medical practices that we now go to a doctor for, but also for relationships, taboos, domestic violence and smaller, but no less interesting things such as food choices, and religious beliefs. She leads us through the life of the first
When the author moved to Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, she was informed that their new home was a birth house years ago. This was her inspiration for this book about Dora Rare, a young woman who was trained to be a midwife and a healer by Miss Babineau. Using herbs and folk medicine, Miss B had been taking care of the families in this remote village for decades.

When Dr Thomas opens the Canning Maternity Home in a nearby town, he brings in totally different ideas about childbirth. He uses ether and for
Nov 04, 2011 Susan rated it it was ok
I really, really wanted to like this book. I think it had an excellent premise, but I never felt connected to the characters. There was never a reason behind any of the character's actions. For example, I never understood why the main character became a midwife. I needed to know the motivation for these characters & that never happened for me. I felt like the characters were extremely one-dimensional: character A wanted birth control, character B needed an abortion, charcter C was a lesbian, ...more
Mar 29, 2013 Gaile rated it really liked it
Shelves: mass-fiction, ww1, canada
When she is very young, Dora Rare who lives in Nova Scotia is introduced to midwifery by the midwife in her community. This woman after teaching Dora all she knows dies. Dora, having married young gathers up she can find of the midwifery knowledge but soon realizes her husband doesn't want her to serve the women of her community. In the meantime a new maternity hospital is set up nearby and Dr. Thomas declares himself a dedicated authority on the hysterical humors of the female.
Then an abusive
Nancy (NE)
Mar 05, 2011 Nancy (NE) rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: period-pieces
The Birth House is a well written novel about midwifery in Nova Scotia during the early part of the 1900's. Dora Rare struggles with the folk wisdom and herbal knowledge that have been passed down to her, versus the advent of modern medicine. The book covers alot of ground from sexuality, women's right's, banned books, the advent of electricity, domestic violence and World War I. I loved the format which included diary entries, letters, newspaper articles and advertisements. The back of the book ...more
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Ami McKay’s debut novel, The Birth House was a # 1 bestseller in Canada, winner of three CBA Libris Awards, nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and a book club favourite around the world.

Her new novel. The Virgin Cure, is inspired by the life of her great- great grandmother, Dr. Sarah Fonda Mackintosh, a female physician in nineteenth century New York. Born and raised in
More about Ami McKay...

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“No matter what you do, someone always knew you would.” 116 likes
“If women lose the right to say where and how they birth their children, then they will have lost something that's as dear to life as breathing.” 18 likes
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