Heidi's Reviews > The Birth House

The Birth House by Ami McKay
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's review
May 22, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: read-in-2012
Read in April, 2012

The story is told in the first person by the character of Dora Rare, who at 17 years of age becomes the apprentice and later successor of Miss Babineau, a midwife and healer practiced in herb lore. Being the only girl in five generations of the Rare family, and having been born with a caul over her eyes, Dora is not only deemed to bring good luck, but she also shows a gift for assisting women with difficult births. With the arrival of obstetrician Dr. Gilbert Thomas in town, the stage is soon set for a clash between old traditions and wisdom against modern medicine, as he sets up a new maternity hospital in town, working to get the menfolk on his side to make sure that all women deliver their babies in his own facility rather than in their homes, as has been the practice so far.

It is 1917, and Dora soon has other worries than competing with the new doctor in town. Even in the far reaches of Nova Scotia Dora the villagers are touched by the events of World War I, and a lot of men leave town to join the war effort, including two of Dora’s brothers. Set against the rich historical events of the era, including the Halifax explosion and the Spanish flu epidemic, Dora experiences her own life changing events of marriage, widowhood, motherhood and fighting for and finding her own place as a woman in a changing society.

Apart from wonderful insights into herb lore and midwifery around the turn of the century, my favourite part of the book was the look behind the scenes into the village women’s secret life. Seemingly dominated by their husbands, the women of Nova Scotia are really a force to be reckoned with as they fight a quiet battle for their own rights and choices. There are some classic pearls of wisdom in this story, such as the advice Dora receives from one of the ladies of the “Occasional Knitters Society” (which was officially founded to knit socks for the war effort, but which really serves as a forum for the women to get together and share their experiences without their husbands suspecting anything): “If your husband smokes, be thankful he doesn’t chew; if he smokes and chews both, be thankful he doesn’t drink; if he does all three, be thankful he won’t live long.”

The story is told scrap-book style with the help of letters, newspaper articles, invitations and recipes – which make it different from your run of the mill historical novel. My only disappointment was that the story seemed to slow down and “fizzle out” towards the end of the book, as I would have liked to learn more about Dora’s everyday life and skills as midwife and healer in her own right. All in all this was a really enjoyable story told with a uniquely fresh voice, and I couldn’t put it down!

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