Review: The Birth House

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I began this book feeling excited. It was about midwifery, set in the province I grew up in. It had to be great! And the first 3/4ths were. But then, it was like a speeding train that half heartedly slipped off the tracks with a giant shrug.

The story begins with Dora Rare, with Mik’maq blood deep in the family’s past, the only daughter in a family tradition of sons. A little strange and “witchy”, she’s tormented by class mates and admonished by adults. Her father is uncomfortable with her burgeoning womanhood at 17, and ships her off to live with another witchy woman, Louisiana transplant Miss Marie Babineau, the local midwife.

After this is where things started going off for me, but I was willing to accept it, because it was still interesting. Dora is suddenly incredibly knowledgable and wise concerning midwifery in the span of about a year. Dr. Thomas comes into the picture, opening a “maternity home” for the “latest obstetrical advances” that directly competes with Miss B and Dora’s midwifery. Apparently all the expectant fathers are 100% into this new medical childbirth while the women are all nervous about it.

Then a confusing courtship begins between Dora and the eldest son of a rich widow, which seems completely out of left field as Dora is even more marginalized as a witchy midwife, despite her chastity. Apparently, Archer Bigelow would rather get it on with the local “loose” woman, but won’t get his inheritance if he marries her because she’s a tramp, or something. So Dora is the next best thing? She’s attracted to him, so she goes for it. But then her attraction is suddenly over once they marry, and she tries to avoid him at all costs. In return, he leaves for long periods.

The day of the wedding, Miss B mysteriously disappears, and is never heard from again. We are to assume she died, and found a way to make her body disappear. Or maybe she ascended to heaven, who knows.

Archer becomes a controlling jackass, and Dora has to hide her midwifery dabbling as neither he nor Dr Thomas approve (for someone who lives and works out of the area, the Dr seems to know everything), and paint her as a dangerous monster, intent on using backwards remedies and hocus pocus on the local women. She is at a birth at the maternity home and witnesses twilight sleep, and later the postpartum depression of the same mother. Archer conveniently drowns and is out of the picture.

Eventually, she is run out of town after she helps a woman have an late term abortion and the woman dies within 24 hours of visiting her. (But don’t worry, she was super conflicted about helping abort the baby.) She goes to stay with her brother in Boston, where he lives with a bunch of transient women who are suffragists, lesbians, artists, and more, across the alley from a brothel. Eventually, her name is cleared, as Abortion Woman’s husband is accused of pushing his wife down a flight of stairs (which killed her in her weakened state), and so Dora returns home.

In the last few short chapters, Dora and her newfound sass opens her home as a birth house, unceremoniously runs Dr Thomas out of town, and takes a lover in her deceased husband’s younger brother. And that’s it.

Sprinkled throughout are some random historical events, such as World War I and the Halifax Explosion.

My biggest problem with the book was how it didn’t connect the dots between all the plots. It was too ambitious, and it didn’t give enough time to develop any of the plot threads. It was like a fleshed out outline, not a novel. McKay could probably have skipped all of the Boston stuff, and elaborated more on the ousting of Dr Thomas. I didn’t feel like his departure was earned. Some criticisms of the book stem on the white hat/black hat nature of the conflict between Dora and Dr Thomas, and I can see that. He does seem a little overtly villainous. The historical elements are just thrown in, like checklist items that needed to be marked complete.

The ideas and promise were here in the book, but it just didn’t come together in a way that made the book anything above mediocre. I also would have liked a lengthy postscript about the historical things referenced in the book, like whether the Canning maternity home existed, if the Birth House was a real thing, and maybe some other tidbits about the Halifax explosion and other contextualizing details, rather than the first several chapters of her next novel.

3 stars.

This book fulfills the book set in a different country, book a friend recommended, and book that takes place in your hometown requirements.

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