The Birth House by Ami McKay
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 apprentice. Together, they help the women of Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labors, 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, some of the women begin to question Miss Babineau’s methods – and after Miss Babineau’s death, Dora is left to carry on alone. In the face of fierce opposition, she must summon all of her strength to protect the birthing traditions and 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 maintain control over their own bodies and to keep the best parts of tradition alive in the world of modern medicine.
I’m really torn by this book. I loved reading about midwifery, being immersed in the history, and the reactions to change. I enjoyed the beginning of this book when Dora was apprenticing to be a midwife and all of the parts with Mss Babineau and her journal. I like how the author wove the story by including letters, newspaper articles, and ads. It was clever. However, I found the book dragged for me after Dora decided to get married.
It is clear that McKay has done her research. I did find that she tended to put everything in, however, that she found interesting from that time and place. For example, it is highly unlikely that this young woman would have really helped with the Halifax explosion survivors and that section of the book didn’t really lead anywhere. The part that took place in Boston also seemed a bit contrived simply to give Dora that experience.
I love to think that Dora was as open minded as she was, for example, being feminist, a pacifist, and not homophobic, but it also didn’t feel that realistic.
But, I did like Dora. The women in her knitting circle were fantastic and the friendship the women showed each other was great.
Overall, I thought this was a good book, if a bit unfocused, and provided an interesting look at a pivotal time in Canadian history.