Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Birth House - Book Review

The Birth House by Ami McKay is set in the years surrounding the First World War in a small Nova Scotian town called Scots Bay. It follows the life of Dora Rare, a rare child indeed: the first girl in 5 generations of Rare boys.  Dora is one of a kind: born with a cowl of her eyes, she is set apart as soon as she makes an appearance in the world. It isn't much of a surprise to the reader that she sets off on a different path by taking up with Miss B, the Acadian midwife-healer who is considered odd, even witchy, by the town, but who is there for support when people are birthing or in precarious situations. Set in a time where the world is changing: the war, influenza, the advent of more modern medicine and electricity coming to rural towns, there is a sense of fear of the unknown throughout the novel. When Dr. Gilbert Thomas comes to Scots Bay spouting the words "clean, modern medicine," and claiming to bring the women safer and pain-free births, many think he has all of the answers... Dora Rare isn't one of them, but she, Miss B, and the Occasional Knitter's Society are up for a spirited fight: natural and traditional remedies and ways of being versus modern, scientific medicine.

Because of its focus on birthing, The Birth House cannot be divorced from its heavy saturation of women's issues. At this point in history there was a long way to go in terms of women being treated as equal to the men in their lives. McKay touches not only on women's right to choose to get pregnant and have babies (and all the issues associated with that), but issues related to marriage, opportunities for work, hysteria, infertility, abortions, and everything in between.

McKay's book gets to the core of these issues, touching on each in a way that helps you understand the perspective of the particular character immediately. What I love about this book is the vibrant portraits McKay paints of women living beyond the stereotypes of "women back then." You have Miss B who is full of ancient knowledge and intuition; a force to be reckoned with despite her alienation due to her strong, independent, and kind nature. You have Dora who comes of age at a changing time, but who is true to herself, eventually making a life that denies everyone's expectations and is perfectly suited to her own needs and wants. The main character, Dora Rare, is one of those characters you can't help but feel for. She warms your heart with her concern for the women and children of Scots Bay and her deep intuition about what is best for them and for herself. You also have characters like the "women from away" or the wonderful ladies Dora meets while visiting her brother that, though they only appear for brief moments, have a way of charming you.

I found the portrayal of Grace's character a bit one-sided and would have liked to see more development of her character throughout the novel as well as more insights into her behaviour. Other than that I felt the characters were quite well-rounded.

I think this book really forces you to think about where you stand on several issues... In this modern age I believe in a bundle of contradictions. I believe in the wonders of modern medicine, but I also believe in natural remedies... I try to avoid the doctor and taking medication if I believe I can sort it out myself, but I whole heartedly believe that medicine is necessary and extremely beneficial in many cases. I believe in going to a doctor at the hospital to have your baby, but I support women who also have their babies at home under the direction of midwives, as long as they are taking proper precautions. I can only image the mix of confusion, fear, suspicion and hope that women in this time would have felt with all the new medical advances that were making an appearance.

But most of all I believe in a women's right to choose, which I think is what the book was getting at all along. Whether the women of Scots Bay chose to get medical help through the doctor or chose to get Miss B or Dora to help them, it should to be their choice alone, which it so often wasn't in the novel. The women were shamed, forced, or scared into choosing to see the Doctor, things I never want any woman (or man) to experience.

That's all for now!

Keep reading :)

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