The Birth House by Ami McKay

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The Birth House by Ami McKay

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Miss Babineau and the young Dora Rare fight to maintain the rights of community midwives and local healers, in the face of a medical profession with other ideas. Meanwhile a community struggles with war, love and betrayal, and the problems of everyday life. Lyrically written and full of wisdom.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: May 2007
Publisher: HarperPerennial
ISBN: 978-0007233304

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My house stands at the edge of the earth. Together the house and I have held strong against the churning tides of Fundy. Two sisters, stubborn in our bones.

In those first three short sentences of prologue McKay already had me at her mercy. Unless she failed to keep the promise those words uttered I was going to love this book.

Scots Bay, Nova Scotia is a real place. A really isolated place. It is the place where, decanting from Chicago, journalist Ami McKay and her husband bought an old farmhouse. In the house she discovered beneath the wallpaper, old tokens and newspapers, and when you fell pregnant and began the search for a midwife, neighbours started to tell the stories of her new home, which itself had once been "a birth house". Such was the inspiration for McKay's first novel.

Inspiration is a much overworked word in describing an author's interest and thought process and work production... but sometimes the result makes it apt. This is an 'inspired' book. It captures place and time and character with such lyrical precision that there is a sense of breathing in the very atmosphere of the world you're being led into.

In that prologue that captivated me immediately, we learn that Dora's father Judah Rare built the house for her the year she got married, 1917. A strong house for a Rare woman he said. And Dora is a Rare woman in every sense. The first daughter born to generations of Rare men. A woman truly her own at a time, when to be such a thing was only just becoming fashionable. A woman so truly her own that she would 'settle' for life in this remote place in exchange for the treats and tricks of the City - not out of duty, not out of fear, but as a positive, wilful choice.

1917 is not the start of the story, however. The Rare story is known back as far as 1760 when a ship of Scots immigrants was wrecked in Fundy. Many perished. Some survived and found their way back into the world. One survived and loved a Mi'kmaq man she called Silent Rare and stayed. This was the beginning of Scots Bay.

Dora's story starts in the half-held memories of childhood. The first girl in five generations, born with the throw-back Mi'kmaq black-haired cinnamon-skin and a caul over her face, she's thought a witch by virtue of birth. That she's a wayward confident child probably doesn't help her case... but when you have to hold your own in a houseful of brothers, confidence and waywardness are quickly instilled... .and those brothers that will force you into it, will fiercely protect your right to it outside the family circle.

Dora's not the only 'feared' female in the community, however. The real power in that regard lies with Miss Babineau. Miss B is Cajun-born out of Louisiana and brings from the south her voodoo-Catholic mixture, strong in prayer and faith, all bound in the wisdom of experience and the knowledge of the natural healing of plants and the planet. She writes down her secrets in The Willow Book... but shares their gifts freely with her neighbours. For all they may doubt her methods, and fear her ways, Miss B is trusted: the people come to her for everyday cures and with life-threatening ailments; above all she is called upon to catch their children at birth. She is, perhaps, a witch, in the true sense of the word. She is a wise-woman. A knowledgeable one.

And for all they may be uncertain of her, they trust her... and they look after her. She is never paid. But she is fed with the bounty of the neighbourhood. Her house-fixings are dealt with, and her journeying assisted.

Through accident of being there at the time, Dora comes to assist Miss B at a difficult birth with unhappy consequences. Then by the imperative of a growing girl, growing too freely and threatening to upset the conventions, she finds herself reluctantly apprenticed to the ageing midwife. Although this is not a road of her choosing Dora quickly realises her skill and vocation...

... but none of us know the paths we are to travel. If Dora foresees a future of following in Miss Babineau's footsteps, she overlooks a marriage and the threat of the medical profession - which has one eye of the profits and another on the new science and a determination to outlaw and banish the traditional ways at any cost. Cost, that is, to the patients, not to themselves.

Through the years of the First World War - which may have seemed a world away from Nova Scotia, but had its impacts even there - Dora struggles to assist the community, to maintain her own reputation, and to find happiness in the face of distrust and betrayal.

There is a story to be told, and one that would play well on the screen, but if the bones of the plot are analysed, they seem scarcely strong enough to support a book of this weight. This is one I would hope to see outlast the fate of many first-novels.

The thing is: sometimes, it is in 'the telling of it' that a story's strength lies... and that is so in this case. McKay's descriptions of Scots Bay, told in the incidental paragraphs of a frolic on the beach, or the spiders webs on the hill, or the singing down of the moon to lead the tide to bring the sailors home, have the still, mythical quality that is tangible in these remote places even in the 21st century. It is a place that you are brought to care about, as much as you care about the women with in it.

It is mostly the women who feature. Dora's brothers, husband, and others play their roles, the young doctor, the old sailors... but this is a woman's story, and more than that, a woman whose strength is in womanhood and the female world. It is not anti-male. Although the real villains of the piece are men; they are ably assisted by those women bound by convention, or fear. It does however assert that feminine 'strength' is nothing new. It was alive and kicking, even in the backwaters, a hundred years ago.

The research that has gone into the background of this tale shines through, without being forced upon the reader. Major events such as the Halifax Explosion and the Influenza epidemic are fixed in the plot, and locally tragic incidents such as the Boston molasses explosion provide light relief. Details are shared by idiosyncratic devices that give clear validity to ideas, without long digressions. Having Dora tell the story, partly in diary form, partly by sharing letters written and received, McKay allows her to talk to you across the kitchen table. So when she passes you snippets from "The Willow Book" or "The Canning Register"... .or advertisements from "Vaughan's Almanac" or "The Ladies Rural Companion" it doesn't interrupt the flow... but makes you wonder a little more. The fact that those advertisements could be for the sale of bibles or, just as easily, The White Cross Battery Powered Vibrator might just be a surprise for those of us brought up on the myth of the 1960's.

McKay has produced a beautiful, carefully-crafted book that is full of historical and social detail, but more importantly one which is a sheer pleasure to read.

The HarperPerennial paperback edition includes "Notes from the Willow Book" listing the remedies Miss B passed on, together with an interview with the author and her own explanation of the inspiration behind the book, not to mention some helpful pointers should you want to find out more about those social details.

Booklists.jpg The Birth House by Ami McKay is in the Top Ten Books For Your Auntie.

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