The Birth House by Ami McKay

birth-houseMcKay’s novel is the story of Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born in five generations of Rares. 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 first years of World War I, Dora becomes the midwife’s apprentice. Together, they help the women of Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labours, breech births, unwanted pregnancies and even unfulfilling sex lives.

But when Gilbert Thomas, a brash medical doctor, come 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.

I read all 368 pages ofMcKay’s novel in one day. It held me captivated, so much that I started thinking about Dora’s story during my town’s Christmas play, and stopped paying attention to the Waltons. {Sorry, Helen.} The story, which is divided into three sections, is beautifully written. Dora is such an interesting character, one who kept me guessing about what she was going to do next, and the story itself was very informative about Nova Scotia’s midwifery.

“My house became the birth house. That’s what the women came to call it, knocking on the door, ripe with child, water breaking on the porch. First-time mothers full of questions, young girls in trouble and seasoned women with a brood already at home. (I called those babies “toesies,” because they were more than their mamas could count on their fingers.) They all came to the house, wailing and keening their babies into the world.” (pg. ix)

What really kept me in raptures about The Birth House was the conflict between “old medicine” and “new medicine.” The book provides an interesting debate between midwives over doctors. While the doctor in this novel is greedy and only in it for the money, and you’re forced to see only the pros of “old medicine,” it still left me wondering if “homegrown” medicine is between the manufactured medicine. Dora also argues that women should have the right to choose everything about their reproductive health – from abortion to birth control to where exactly they have their babies.

However, while the first two sections kept me in raptures, the third one completely lost my attention. The story is based around the conflict between religion/nature and science, but the third section had little to do with this conflict. Rather, it followed Dora on her trip to Boston, a decision I didn’t think meshed with her characterization.

Still, I’m looking forward to McKay’s next book because McKay is such a wonderful storyteller who clearly puts a lot of effort into the information she presents. According to her bio, she got the idea for The Birth House after moving to Scots Bay, Nova Scotia and learning that her new home was once a birth house.

Book Mentioned:

  • McKay, Ami. The Birth House. New York: Harper Collins, 2006. Print. 368 pgs. ISBN: 0061135852. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Harper Collins. Retrieved: December 15, 2008.

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