Saturday, March 31, 2007

A House Full of Babies

The Birth House by Ami McKay

Oh, my goodness, if you haven't read this book yet, you simply must! I had been putting it off for quite a while, even though I had heard wonderful things about it. Now, I am so glad that I added it to my Spring Reading Thing 2007 list.


Miss Dora Rare tells us her stories of daily life in Scots Bay, Nova Scotia in the early 1900s. But her daily life was far from ordinary. Growing up in a house surrounded by men (she had six brothers) Dora quickly became "one of the boys" much to her father's chagrine.

In an effort to separate her from her rowdy brothers so that she might eventually catch the eye of a suitor her father insisted on sending her to live with her Aunt Fran, who would teach her to be a lady. Well, Dorrie's mother wouldn't hear of it, since Aunt Fran is a bit high-and-mighty, well-to-do, and always seems to find a way to look down her nose at their simple ways. (As it turns out, Aunt Fran isn't nearly as perfect as she would like us to think!)

Dora, instead, goes to live with Miss Marie Babineau, the elderly midwife ("witch" according to many townfolk) who mentored her in catching babies and healing the sick with all sorts of potions and dreadful-sounding concoctions, and many many prayers.

As the story unfolds, Dora takes Miss B.'s role on, and gets into a few rough spots, thanks to the "know-it-all" Dr. Gilbert Thomas who has opened a new Maternity hospital for women to have their babies at, "pain-free" with the help of a little twilight sleep. His ridiculous remedies and theories of women's fits of hysteria and the cures therein (think of The Road to Wellville) were unfortunately, quite accurate for the time. Of course Dr. Thomas would like all the women to choose his practice because that means more money in his pocket. Therefore, he needs to convince Dora (and the community) that she really must end her midwifery days.

Dora finds herself rushing to Halifax, thrown into the aftermath of the Halifax explosion to care for the pregnant women who were launched into premature labour from the impact of the explosion.

She finds herself fleeing to Boston, where she questions her small-town existence as she is inspired by the women's movement and also unknowingly by Miss Honey, one of the girls at Paddy Malloy's Playhouse nextdoor.

As the years go by, we watch Dora grow out of her shell and become the woman she is intended to be, and her life unfolds, just as Miss B. predicted it would: in a house full of babies.


The characters are each unique and memorable. You can certainly find something to detest or adore about each of them - no matter how small a role they play. The research that McKay has done for this book is thorough, and she even calls on real historical events that greatly impact the lives of the residents of Scots Bay (the war, the Halifax explosion, for example).

In fact, I was surprised to discover that the entire premise of this book is based on the life of a real midwife who used to live in the house that McKay bought in Nova Scotia.

Read the book, and then go to McKay's website, to discover the conception of the novel, learn tidbits of history (such as midwifery in the early 1900s, groups like the Occasional Knitter's Society, and yes, even the early uses of the vibrator to cure hysteria), and even have your tea leaves read to see what the future holds for you.

This was by far, one of the most wonderful, engaging reads I have ever had. The storyline had me engrossed from start to finish. And the design is perfectly detailed. There are even notes from the Willow Book included at the end (just in case you need a little Beaver Brew or Raspberry Tea).


Bookfool said...

This one's been on my wish list forever. I'll get to it, eventually; glad you enjoyed it! :)

alisonwonderland said...

i'm definitely adding this one to my TBR list. thanks for the great review!

would you mind if i link to you on my book blog?

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