Monday, July 29, 2013

The Birth House

The Birth House by Ami McKay

This was the selection for July's Book Club. I had quit attending Book Club when I left the Woman's Club that sponsors it. Just last week I was thinking that I'd like to start attending again and sent a friend a message to only discover that they were meeting in just four days. So, feeling far too much English teacher guilt to attend without having finished the book, I spent a lot of time over the past few days- right up to 30 minutes before the meeting- finishing the novel. It was not a difficult task though because I enjoyed reading it. I really enjoyed it, unlike a lot of other readers in the club it seems.

The novel is broken into three parts, which are framed by three stages of the protagonist and narrator, Dora's, life. The majority of the book takes place in a small rural shipbuilding community in Nova Scotia. When Dora had become too old for it to be decent for her to snuggle with her older brothers downstairs by the fire during the cold months, she was sent to live Mrs. B. Miss Babineau was the local midwife, often easily accused of witchery due to her potions, prayers, and Cajun ways. A Doctor of Obstetrics and Women's Health moves into town and causes most of the community to question the antiquated and "backwoods" ways of Mrs. B. The men of the village take pride in being able to afford doctor's care for their expectant wives, which though accessorized with the modern tools of chloroform and forceps, does not prove to be the best care available. Thus begins a conflict between Mrs. B and Dora, as her apprentice, of new medicine and the legalities to avoiding such care.

When I first read the summary of the novel, I was not too enthused to read a book set during the war, thinking it would be too historical in nature (yawn). However, the real focus on history through the novel's development is on the rights of women and how women were treated by the medical industry. The big topics, such as suffrage and being trapped in an abusive marriage by society were touched, but much more interesting were the excerpts from medical texts warning women from cold drafts and reading too much.

In Part One, Dora's younger years, the narrator's voice reminded me some of Scout (To Kill a Mockingbird) but mostly of the young girl from The Secret Life of Bees. I expected the narrator's voice to grow into one reminiscent of The Help, but that didn't quite happen. Unfortunately, in Part Two and Three I think the narrator tried to squeeze in far too much. There are lots of interesting developments in Dora's life, from assisting victims from an explosion in Halifax to moving into an adult orphanage with lesbians next to a whorehouse. But there are just too many developments. So, they are over nearly as quickly as they begun and there is a void of missing details ripped into the seam of the narrative.

I did like that even though Dora was born into a family with a long genealogical line extending back for generations in the rural community, she found herself only really able to connect with the "others," women brought back from other villages to be the wives of men unable to find one at home. I liked the exchanges between these women and wanted to be part of their clan. I liked the believable ways in which Dora exerted her freedom and independent thinking within a society that wanted to force her into a very sheltered and defined role.

I also greatly liked that although the ending of the book is predictable, it is not. I would have been a bit angered had the novel not concluded in the direction I had hope, yet the twist given to the conclusion by the author stops the predictability from being boring.

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