I was a bit reluctant to read The Birth House by Ami McKay, as its topic does not seem like one that would interest me. Then, Steph @Bella’s Bookshelves reassured me and told me that the book is more about community life than anything else; that convinced me and I was not disappointed. This novel was a pleasure to read.
I think the way McKay approaches this book is clever and appealing. She has put together a kind of scrapbook with newspaper articles, advertisements, recipes from the Willow Book, letters and diary entries, which give some variety to the narrative.
The story is grounded in its historical context of the 1916-17 and is narrated in the first person by Dora Rare, the first girl to be born in five generations of the Rare family. Dora is a bit of an abnormality in this family and some people from the community tend to see her as a kind of witch.
“Ever since I can remember, people have had more than enough to say about me. As the only daughter in five generations of Rares, most figure I was changed by faeries or not my father’s child. Mother works and prays too hard to have anyone but those with the cruellest tongues doubt her devotion to my father. When there’s no good explanation for something, people of the Bay find it easier to believe in mermaids and moss babies, to call it witchery and be done with it. Long after the New England Planters’ seed wore the Mi’kmaq out of my family’s blood, I was born with coal black hair, cinnamon skin and a caul over my face. A foretelling. A sign. A gift that supposedly allows me to talk to animals, see people’s deaths and hear the whisperings of spirits. A charm for protection against drowning.”
It is not surprising, then, that Dora is the young woman Mrs B. chooses to take over her role as the community midwife. Mrs B. is an Acadian descendant and has received “the sacred gifts of the traiteur“. These gifts include “catching babies” and the knowledge of herbs as remedies to cure women’s ills. While she delivers babies, she sings and prays in French, thus invoking the angels to help her and the labouring mother.
Dora is an attaching character, maybe a bit too good for my taste though. Through her we meet the inhabitants of the community of Scots Bay and Canning: her aunt, who wants to keep up appearances and always agrees with the norms; the women of the Occasional Knitting Society, who try to resist the patriarchal order in their own ways; the Ketches, a stereotypical poor family with a violent father and so many children one cannot keep count; and, of course, Doctor Thomas. The Doctor is new the community and sets up a maternity in Canning, a nearby town. Always praising the miracles science is doing to ease the experience of birth, he wants Mrs B. and her follower to stop practising midwifery. Most of the story revolves around this conflict between homebirth and the progress of science, although there are other subplots, such a Dora’s travel to Boston where she encounters the world of feminism.
McKay is not the first to point to this conflict. In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood already dealt with the issues brought by modern medicine. The way I see The Birth House is more as a consideration the tension between tradition and scientific progress in general, although they are, here, mainly represented as midwifery and modern medicine. One can think about how, in the name of Reason, we have forgotten about important human values as well as consider the conflict between nature and culture. The position McKay adopts is obvious, but, in our modern times, it certainly raises questions and makes one consider the effects of “progress”. Obviously, it is not all black and white, but I believe this novel can be seen as gently raising such considerations
It is a touching story which colourfully evokes community life in Nova Scotia at the beginning of the twentieth century. As I said, I like the way it presents the conflict between the natural/traditional world, but I must admit that its mystical aspects and the constant evocation of angels can be a little bit too much (for me) at times. Yet, it did not ruined my enjoyment at reading it.
One thing I regret is that I don’t like tea and won’t be able to try all those tempting infusions from the Willow Book.