You gots to be a two-headed person. And what I
means by that is you gots to think and see two things at once. -Miss B
Having just finished this book tonight, I'm disappointed that I didn't take my time and savour every word. I'm going to miss Dora Rare, the narrator and protagonist of Ami McKay's Birth House. Dora is the only girl to be born in a family of five generations of boys. Family lore says that only boys will be born into the Rare family.
From the start, Dora's birth is shrouded in superstition; she maybe a blessing or a curse to her parents. As she grows up, she finds she is isolated from the other children in Scots Bay, Nova Scotia. She isn't charming or beautiful (She learns the truth at seventeen, that love is meant for beauty queens) and her birth sets her apart from them.
The only friends she has are her six brothers and a mysterious old woman named Marie Babineau (Miss B). She is a midwife come from away- Louisiana- to help the women of Scots Bay have their babies. She is so much more than a midwife. She offers cures for their ailments, listens to their complaints with an open heart and gives practical advice.
All of Miss B's knowledge is written in a mysterious book called The Willow Book. For all her kindness, she is still looked upon with suspicion. People hardly bring themselves to own that they know her. Trouble comes in the form of Dr Thomas, the fancy new physician with 'scientific' ideas and disdain for the old ways. He wishes to put Miss B out of business by luring the people of Scots Bay to "The Canning Maternity Home," for a fee of course.
Miss B knows her time has come and puts the lives of the Scots Bay women and children into the hands of a reluctant Dora. The Willow Book is left to her. Dora just wants to be normal. She wants a husband and babies and a comfortable home. Dora comes to find that the path less taken is often the lesser of two evils.
McKay writes a lyrical 'scrapbook' of a novel, filled with letters, journal entries and actual magazine advertisements. I especially liked the ad for The White Cross Battery-Powered Vibrator as a cure for hysteria. Dora's reaction to the device is priceless:
My third treatment left me glowing with exhaustion and a
bit feverish. It brings such joy to my heart, it is hard to know
what is the proper amount. (Perhaps three times in one day is too
The science of the time seems more ridiculous than the old wives cures. Dr Thomas diagnoses women as hysterical or neurotic, when modern medicine would say depression. He tells women morning sickness is in their heads.
The birth scenes can at times be heartbreaking, like all the stillbirths and deaths during the Halifax Explosion. It brought tears to my eyes. But there were also touching moments filled with mother's love. The friendships Dora cultivates as a woman are touching as well. The Occasional Knitters Society are a force to be reckoned with!
The book made me glad to be a woman in modern times with modern health care. But it also makes me realize that my health and happiness is in my own hands.
As a bonus, the book has extras in the back and on the website. Go have your tea leaves read.