Review: The Birth House by Ami McKayThe Birth House by Ami McKay
Published by Vintage Canada on March 6th, 2007
Genres: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Source: Ottawa Library

The Birth House is the story of Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born in five generations of the Rare family. As a child in an isolated village in Nova Scotia, she is drawn to Miss Babineau, an outspoken Acadian midwife with a gift for healing and a kitchen filled with herbs and folk remedies. During the turbulent years of World War I, Dora becomes the midwife's apprentice. Together, they help the women of Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labors, breech births, unwanted pregnancies and even unfulfilling sex lives.

When Gilbert Thomas, a brash medical doctor, comes to Scots Bay with promises of fast, painless childbirth, some of the women begin to question Miss Babineau's methods - and after Miss Babineau's death, Dora is left to carry on alone. In the face of fierce opposition, she must summon all of her strength to protect the birthing traditions and wisdom that have been passed down to her.

Filled with details that are as compelling as they are surprising-childbirth in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion, the prescribing of vibratory treatments to cure hysteria and a mysterious elixir called Beaver Brew- The Birth House is an unforgettable tale of the struggles women have faced to maintain control over their own bodies and to keep the best parts of tradition alive in the world of modern medicine.

The Birth House‘s protagonist, Dora Rare, is such a fan of Jane Austen that on the first time she helps a mother through childbirth, she names the baby Darcy, after the character of Pride and Prejudice. Interesting, considering The Birth House might really well be the kind of novel Jane Austen would have written, had she lived in the 20th century.
This is to say how much I loved the novel.

The Birth House by Ami McKay takes place in a remote village of Nova Scotia at the beginning of the 20th century. Dora is Judah Rare’s daughter, and this happens to be an embarrassing fact: first, the Rare family is known to produce male descendants only. Second, girls are not supposed to read books, take off their clothes to take a swim in the sea or worst, speak their minds… all of which Dora loves to do. As a result, Dora starts feeling out of place quite early in her life.
Maybe that’s why she quickly gets attached to Miss Babineau, an old mid-wife respected and feared in the village. Even though people call her a witch, every mother-to-be welcomes her help during childbirth. Soon after Dora becomes her apprentice, the village is shaken by several events: World War I takes away the young men, an outsider opens a “modern” birth clinic and try to sell a costly health insurance to all household in Scots Bay… Dora’s way of life gets challenged in the turmoils.

The Birth House is a beautiful little window opened to Eastern Canada at the very beginning of the 20th century. It’s a time of drastic changes: the industrial revolution is challenging traditions and the First World War opens the most recluse communities to a much bigger, frightening world. It’s also the beginning of feminism: the federal government of Canada granted the right to vote to women in 1918. It makes Dora witness and actor of an incredible social revolution that Ami McKay depicted extremely well.

One of the theme in the book is the freedom of women in the family cell. Believe it or not, women – whom you could consider specialists in the matter of childbirth – must then defend the right to give birth the way they want it. The Birth House depicts this struggle with the conflict between Dora and Miss Babineau–whose skills are based on wisdom, experience and traditions–and Dr Thomas, a young obstetrician putting an extreme emphasis on science, business, and certainly not the human factor. Dr Thomas has not respect for women whatsoever: for him, they are clients, and when it comes to childbirth, he doesn’t seem to understand any of its emotional and symbolic importance. Using strong sedation, forceps, drugs of all kind, he would take away childbirth from mothers by putting them to sleep and taking the baby out by any means (forceps, cups, c-section…) he can control. The Birth House raises interesting questions about the balance between traditional wisdom and scientific improvement (though, Dora being a traditional midwife, this story is strongly skewed toward at-home childbirth).

Finally, Dora is an utterly lovable character and it only takes a few pages to grow attached to her. When the story begins, she is a fragile seventeen-years old who has trouble finding her place in her family and community. She lives in a time and place in which women are supposed to submit to their husband, but she is smart, open-minded and fiercely independent. At first crushed by how the community frowns upon her, she grows more confident through hardship. Also, Ami McKay artfully fleshed Dora out with childhood memories, letters to friends and family enrolled in the army, diary and notes as a midwife… At times, it feels like Dora isn’t a fictional character and you find yourself caring so much about her!

So, The Birth House by Amy McKay is everything from a historical fiction to a feminist manifesto to a social commentary about a remote Nova Scotia village during the First World War. It is beautifully written, feels magical at times, and is impossible to put down till the very last page. Very strongly recommended, especially if you like novels by Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.