Funny, how a book with little plot can be such a page-turner! Ami McKay wrote this novel after discovering that her own home in Scots Bay, Nova Scotia was a ‘birth house’ back around the turn of the century. I love the idea that her curiosity about real events led to this charming fiction.
The story centres around Dora, a young protégé midwife who’s forced to carry on the tradition alone, after her mentor, an equal-parts religious and superstitious spinster mysteriously disappears (we can only assume she died, but we don’t know how or where – cue creepy music). Dora’s goal to help the women of the Bay, however, is only made more difficult with the town’s arrival of the fancy new Dr. Thomas, intent on peddling new birthing technologies like chloroform and forceps (cue more creepy music). While the overall story is heart warming and charming (it’s creatively interwoven to include straight narrative alongside newspaper articles and clippings, letters, and journal entries), it’s also pretty compelling thanks to its Gothic undertone (think Phantom of the Opera, Jane Eyre, or Wuthering Heights).
This tone comes with the territory of the subject matter: women used to have their babies in the most natural of ways (listening to their bodies, rather than their doctors) – and now they don’t, as much. We now live in a highly medicalized society, but we’re starting to turn, once again, to more natural (and, in a lot of ways, safer) birthing methods. Because The Birth House is set in a time when all this was changing, when new thinking said it was a good thing to pass out and have absolutely no memory of your child’s birth (as Dr. Thomas claims), there is a naturally ominous feel to this book. And it’s a good thing! I want to emphasize my belief that there’s a time and a place for natural versus medical childbirths – women now have the option to go one way or another based on their birthing needs and circumstances, and I’m behind that. (I think most reasonable people would be.) But we should still be active thinkers when it comes to things that affect us so directly. That is what makes The Birth House so powerful – no matter your final stance on the very controversial child birthing-opinions-spectrum, it gets you thinking, because it gets under your skin a little bit.