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Overview An arresting portrait of the struggles that women faced for control of their own bodies, The Birth House is the story of Dora Rareâ€”the first daughter in five generations of Rares.
As apprentice to the outspoken Acadian midwife Miss Babineau, Dora learns to assist the women of an isolated Nova Scotian village through infertility, difficult labors, breech births, unwanted pregnancies, and unfulfilling sex lives. During the turbulent World War I era, uncertainty and upheaval accompany the arrival of a brash new medical doctor and his promises of progress and fast, painless
childbirth. In a clash between tradition and science, Dora finds herself fighting to protect the rights of women as well as the wisdom that has been put into her care.
Reviews 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 geographic location of the village it wasn't practical to have the maternity center as the only option. But that's really my only beef with the book.
The author is a great storyteller. This main character felt like she'd be right at home hanging out with Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne of Green Gables. She said she wanted this book to feel like Dora Rare's literary scrapbook and I think she's achieved that. I really enjoyed how she brought in the real life events of the day World War I, the Halifax explosion, the great molasses flood of Boston as historical touch points for the actions of the characters and the setting. The supporting cast was interesting. Did anyone else picture Mrs. Olsen as Aunt Fran while reading this book?
The ending seemed pretty rushed. I would have liked another chapter or two of the "post Mother's Day rally" and then the wrap up/look back at life chapters.
And as always, reading these books set in the past makes me so happy to live in these times. With electricity, cars, Advil, outlet malls and supermarkets. There's just nothing appealing or romantic about living from the land and all that work! 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 section of old midwive's cures which were really interesting. 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. Through much speculation, Ami evokes a lavish rendition of the life of Dora Rare, the only daughter born into 5 generations of sons. From the beginning, Dora was destined for a "special" life, as she came from the womb with a caul that was believed to give her "sight" and whomever retained it, good luck. Based on what facts she could find, Ami gives us the lives of two incredible and tenacious ladies who fight to maintain their ancient herbal birthing and home remedy methods from the march of modern medicine. References to the women's suffragist movement tie in nicely with the abundant audacity of both Dora and her mentor, the "Cajun Witch", Marie Babineau. Bits of history are dosed out via actual news clips, ads and letters of the era. Dora is sent to apprentice under Marie and to ease the financial burden of her struggling parents. When a Doctor arrives with high-falluting claims and finger-pointing disdain for the "old ways", Dora and Marie are faced with the increasing superstitious shunning of the very same women they had treated and midwifed for. Forced into an arranged marriage that quickly turns abusive, Dora continues to fight for her beliefs as well as those who still believe in her. When Marie dies, she leaves Dora struggling to decipher her journals for the right dosage, the correct incantation, and the needed strength to carry on the tradition Marie bestowed upon her. Here is where the story starts swirling and you're sucked into the vortex of Dora's dervishily delightful spunk. Blamed for the death of one of her patients, she takes exile in big city life amongst feminists, commune-livers and the reunion with her brother. Until truth be told, she works her wonders amongst the prostitutes and new found friends before heading back home where her adopted daughter, family and devoted friends have awaited her. Though a better segue from later chapters would have improved a somewhat disjointed ending, I found the book as informative as entertaining and applaud Dora for making it against all odds so triumphantly. 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 and humanistic healer. Strongly recommended. Where do I even begin with this book? It was so beautifully written, the themes and characters woven in with such grace that I find myself thinking about it even though I read it quite some time ago. On the surface it seems that this book is just about a young woman in constrained circumstances who ends up becoming a midwife's assistant and finding her place in the world, but its more than that. Not wanting to give the plot away, the book follows the life of Dora Rare a young woman in a Nova Scotian village who does what's expected of girls in her society and still comes up short in life. It isn't until she's taken under the wings of a local midwife (who ironically is viewed with suspicion and necessity) that she comes into her own calling (and spirituality), finally able to stand up for herself and chart her own unique path in life. As an aside, this book is also a critique on the ways in which the modern medical profession devalued and stigmatized the work of midwives and female healers, which were at one point an integral part of society. All in all, a beautiful novel.
Oct 06, 2012Vanessa Pruitt rated it 5 of 5 stars Âˇ review of another edition The Birth House follows the life of Dora Rare, who lives in a small and slightly isolated village off the coast of Nova Scotia, around the time of World War I. Dora, a young adolescent, is the first girl to be born in many generations of the Rare family genealogy. This alone gives the town enough rumors to spread about her and her family. But when family circumstances force her to choose between staying with her â€œproperâ€? aunt Fran or the local midwife Miss Babineau for the winter, she chooses to stay with the midwife. Rumors and stories abound. Many of the local townspeople view Miss Babineau, and now Dora, as witches or something of the like, and most keep their distance from the both of them; that is until a child is sick, a woman has gynecological concerns, or a baby is being born into the world. In all of those instances the townspeople come running to Miss Babineau for help, and soon to Dora as well.
The Art of Midwifery
The Birth House gives an enchanting example of how the practices of traditional midwifery were passed on from generation to generation. Being a midwife, which means “with woman”, was not and is not just about catching babies. In this story, traditional midwifery takes on a role for women that meets their needs and far exceeds the medical model of care. Miss Babineau does much more for the community than attend labors. Her wisdom abounds in many areas such as mixing up syrups and herbs for the sick that bring down fevers and soothe sore throats and coughs.
Politics and Society
Through this story we also see a political attack against midwifery and a societal misunderstanding of this traditional art. Gilbert Thomas, a medical doctor from a nearby town, continually threatens Dora and Miss Babineau with prosecution. He feels it is a crime to give birth at home when he has established a “superior facility” that is “safe” for women to give birth in. I couldn’t help but feel connected to this story as it presented a belief that is still present in the United States healthcare system today.
In the beginning, The Birth House may seem to be only about birth and midwifery in general, but the author of this novel, Ami McKay, does an amazing job of challenging her readers to confront many other tough issues through this story as well. Emotional and political topics such as abortion, contraception, war, premarital intimacy, and maternal and infant death are broached through an extremely personal point of view. Overall, The Birth House is a story about controversies of humanity that are not unlike those we face today, midwifery being the central theme. The Birth house carries over the reality of discrimination that midwifery has faced for centuries. Traditional midwives today receive much of the same treatment toward their profession. They are attacked by the medical community, misunderstood by the public, and made out to be useless and old fashioned. The Birth House also shows us the holistic approach that is traditional midwifery and it’s impact upon the community as a whole.
I couldn’t help but be drawn into the personal life and journey of Dora Rare. She probably couldn’t have ran from her “calling” to be a midwife if she tried. The suspense only grew as I hung onto every word; I couldn’t wait to turn the page and find out what was going to happen to Dora next, wishing and hoping that her freedom to practice the art of midwifery would be spared and all would end well. I hope that the inspiring story of The Birth House will strengthen your heart for midwifery, past and present, as it did me. I really enjoyed this book! If you enjoyed the style of narrative by the protagonist in Laurence Hill's "Book of Negros", I firmly believe you'll enjoy the voice of Dora Rare. I'm not fond of characters that begin so naive, but luckily she grows gumption as time goes on.
Other characters I truly enjoyed are Miss Babineau and her approach to medicine, Bertine and the Occasional Knitters Society and finally Maxine who unwittingly demonstrates to Dora that their is more than one way to live a full life. Actually, I enjoyed the voices of all the characters; I think McKay created them perfectly.
By the way, I believe this would make a great read for a book club! Their are many levels of contrast/comparisons that can be discussed; science vs. medicine, false society lady gossip compared to the myths of religion (depending how you see it), or the myths of religion alongside the myths of natural medicine (again depends how you view things)and how the society ladies believed one over the other. Food for thought...
In the meantime, go pick it up while I search out Ami McKay's second novel just released a couple of weeks ago "The Virgin Cure". Cheers! 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 accepted the view of the medical system that childbirth is a "health concern" to be "managed" instead of a natural process of the woman's body, to be supported and allow to occur naturally. This book
serves to bring into question, even in our world, the assumptions of what childbirth should be, and what role pain has in the experience of bringing children into the world.
Dora is a terrific character. Through her eyes as she grows into a woman, we see much more than what the community wants us to see about their lives, prejudices and secrets. She is a wonderful ambassador for us into the secret lives of the women that inhabit her neighborhood and inform her sensibilities. Although her character can at times seem lacking in warmth and passion about the circumstances she finds herself in, I think that her reserve is one of the hallmarks of her character and makes her youth and uncertainty about life in her untypical role as a midwife more available to the reader than if she had fully expressed every thought and feeling on paper. She says and does what she needs to say and do, and we are better for having followed her story with her. 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 girl born to a family of mainly men in a very long time, and takes us from her being a young girl to her being a married woman and beyond.
Before you discount the book, and what is in it, you must remember that Ami McKay is writing from a different perspective, a different time era. She masterfully created characters that you can remember well after the last time you opened the book, from the neurotic aunt, to the loving mother, to the doctor who nobody likes (after a spell). She has used authentic props, authentic settings, and a wide variety of emotions throughout the novel, which are tangible from the first page to the very end, where, if you're keeping an open mind and not considering it a women's lib book, you wish it wasn't ending. You root for more than just the main character, you can revel in folklore and the idea that once upon a time, life was actually like this, and in retrospect, no matter how hard it seemed then, it would
be fairly idyllic now - Ami McKay paints a lush period piece filled with description, design and emotion while keeping all of her characters witty, intelligent and believable.
I would recommend this to absolutely anybody I know.
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