It WAS a good read, but it was not all that I was hoping for or expecting. I think Ann Enright's The Gathering has ruined me for good in terms of expecting great things in every book I pick up. And as a side note, I heard an interview w/ Enright on NPR a week or so ago and was again mesmerized by the tale of Veronica and her brother, Liam. I am tempted to go read the story again, even though it was only a month ago that I finished it. Enright mentioned bits of symbolism I'd not picked up on (hence the "frustrated" in "Frustrated English Teacher"; I'm losing my analytical edge big time with these episodes of Dora the Explorer and hours at the play ground).
Anyhooo, back to McKay's Birth House. It was an interesting and enjoyable read, but I expected far more from the struggle between Dora Rare and the male obstetrician set on demolishing the tradition of midwifery during the early 20th century in rural Nova Scotia. What I got instead were a few examples of fiesty midwife spunkiness, one potentially explosive situation that is defused when Dora runs to the safety of Boston, where she mingles with her brother's love, who is a suffragette, and her artistic friends (this would be fascinating if it weren't for what Dora leaves behind her in Canada).
Initially I was very hopeful. The writing is beautiful, if not made of the same ethereal melancholy of Enright. We find Dora Rare, the only girl born to the Rare family in decades, learning the tradition of midwifery from the enigmatic Mrs. Babineau. There are hints that Mrs. B. fluctuates in the town's opinion from miracle worker to witch, a common dilemma faced by midwives throughout history. But even Mrs. B. gives up without much of a fight and Dora's thrust into the struggle against modern medicine on her own.
Far more time than I was hoping for was spent on Dora's personal life, or lack thereof. Had the story not held the promise of the great battle between the age-old tradition of women catching babies and the modern practice of child-birth as medicine, perhaps Dora's craptastic marriage and quest for a man to love her and for becoming a mother in her own right, would have been enough.
But as a woman who ended up with a c-section after only 9 hours of labor, and who sometimes still wonders "what if...", and who bristles against the idea that pregnancy is a medical condition and needs to be treated as such, I really wanted to see the midwife kick some serious OB ass. And it was just too neat a finish for me. No knock down, drag out, fight to the finish for the hearts and uteri of the women of Scot's Bay.
I did love the merry coven of knitters that Dora surrounds herself with and how they bond over cups of tea full of what essentially amounts to RU-486, circa 1919. After years of dropping babies left and right because their husbands can't respect their bodies well enough to leave them alone two days out of the month, the women take matters into their own hands. I loved that. And I loved how Mrs. B and Dora, in their roles as midwife, become the secret keepers of the town. They are vaults of the secret truths of the town's women; even those who scoff at them in public privately rely on them in times of trouble. These relationships were the most redeeming part of the book.
I will say I learned some interesting factoids, too; perhaps I'd been living under a rock, but I had no idea that vibrators were used in the early 20th century as a treatment for the diagnosis of "female hysteria".
To that end, I will say one other thing for McKay's book; it does a FABULOUS job of making the obstetrician look like a completely ignorant dumbass, and I loved that. He misses what is, though it is never called such, clearly a case of impending pre-eclampsia that made me twist in my seat with anxiety.
Had there been a little less about the marriage and a little more intensity in the struggle of midwife vs doctor, this book would have likely been one of my favorites.