Monday, 23 September 2013

The Birth House by Ami McKay

Warning: This Review Contains Spoilers

Mark this down as another book that I enjoyed, but didn't quite love. Something kept me 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.

The writing is really quite lovely, so the predictability wasn't as big a problem as it could have been in the hands of a lesser wordsmith. But there were no real surprises in this book. Of course the midwife wasn't supposed to end up with the handsome but mean and drunken man and was supposed to end up with his kind, injured brother instead. Of course, when she was accused of causing a woman's death, it turned out the woman's husband had pushed her down the stairs instead. All of these things felt quite predictable, and I would have liked non-obvious things to happen.

The one thing I did enjoy was that, at the end, she didn't marry the nice brother, kept her own house, but they stayed together for thirty years. The reaction to this rang very true for what I know of small-town life, where a relationship like that is scandalous and causes talk and some ostracism, but may, in the long run, just fade into the scenery.

Dora, as a young woman, is taken up by the local midwife, and taught her craft. She becomes the sole midwife in her mountain maritime area just as a new doctor comes into town, offering pain-free hospital births, hell-bent on putting Dora out of business, and preferably, in jail. She has to battle the changing tide of medical opinion, her place as an oddity in a community that is trying to forget where they all were birthed, and a questionable marriage. And eventually, a murder charge, when a woman is found dead in her home, and her death is blamed on Dora's ministrations.

Ami McKay has a real gift for creating sympathetic characters, but her antagonists are a little bit thin. The "women from away" who have married into this community, and form the basis of Dora's female support network are lovely. Dora is interesting, although I can't say I ever quite got attached to her. Brief sketches show the depth of feeling between Dora's mother and father, and I loved that.

But the aunt falls a little too much into the stereotype of the religious hypocrite. I'm not saying these people don't exist, but could we have a little variation once in a while? The doctor is also never really fully developed. There are signs of him having a creepy obsession with Dora, but that's not fully explored.

And this is not something I'm blaming the author for, as I think it's a logical assumption to make based on the name of this group, and there's very little written about them out there, but the Sons of Temperance are one of three groups I'm writing my dissertation on, and every time she talked about the Sons of Temperance, and the nights when all the men were off at those meetings, giving the women the night to themselves, it gave my eye a little bit of a twitch. By the 1910s, the Sons of Temperance had admitted women as full members in their organization for over 50 years. It was not a "no-girls-allowed" club. That's actually one of the things that makes them unique on the fraternal order scene.

That's a very minor quibble, and comes directly out of my extremely specialized knowledge of the group. I try not to be a stickler for historical accuracy. But still, because that's one of the groups I spend my days writing about, it bothered me a bit.

In short, The Birth House is well-written, has an interesting if somewhat predictable story, and likeable sympathetic characters, if cardboardy unsympathetic ones. I enjoyed it while I read it.

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