The Birth House by Ami McKay

Dora is the first girl born to the Rare family after five generations of boys. Deemed a peculiar child by the people in this small isolated town of Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, Dora finds her vocation as a midwife, assisting Miss Babineau and learning the various techniques for catching babies and home remedies for various ails. When her mentor dies, Dora inherits her book of willows and carries on the midwife tradition, not only assisting the area ladies with their births, but also helping them to prevent conception and terminate unwanted pregnancies. Then a Doctor Thomas sets up shop in a nearby town, proclaiming that he has a more hygienic method for "painless" childbirth, that is, for a price. Dora once again finds herself cast aside. But she doesn't go down without a fight, one that is fraught with consequences, even forcing her out of town for a time.

Set in the second decade of the twentieth century, the Birth House has the First World War, the Halifax Explosion and the Spanish influenza outbreak as its back drop. Author Ami McKay did considerable research to give this book its rich detail. The Birth House is also a kind of scrapbook. McKay used newspaper articles and period ads to give further detail and change the point of view. For instance, in a run-in between Dora and Dr. Thomas in a general store, the good doctor insults Dora, but the reader does not hear her reaction. Instead, the passage is followed by a local newspaper article in which a woman is reported to have dumped molasses on the good doctor's head. The scrapbooking was a nice touch that gave the book its period look and feel.

When I reached the end of the book, I immediately wanted to know how the author knew so much about midwifery and herbal remedies. I was under the impression she was a type of specialist, but I was mistaken. Ami McKay had moved into a house that had once been the town's birth house and started her research from there. I was particularly impressed with her knowledge of plants native to Nova Scotia. Then I discovered that she isn't even from Nova Scotia, inspite of having all her "somes" in the right spots.

I have no criticisms of this book. It was a great read, and I didn't want it to end. I even found myself slowing down towards the final fifty pages to make it last longer. For those of us who grew up after the advent of the pill, this a great book to see what our fate as women might have been like without readily available contraception.

Truth be told: I'll probably read this book again. Something I don't do very often.

Other reviews of Canada Reads finalists:
The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis
The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou
Unless by Carol Shields
Essex County by Jeff Lemire



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