#36: The Birth House by Ami McKay

I was mad for so much of this book, but this means that I cared.  You can’t get mad about something if you don’t think it matters.

Dora Rare is seventeen and living in a remote town in Nova Scotia at the start of World War I.  She’s the first daughter to be born in many generations of Rares, so right away she’s got a strike against her.  She doesn’t fit in and she’s not sure what she should be doing with herself.  Lucky for her, she has Miss B.

Miss B has been the village’s midwife for a long time and caught Dora when she was born.  She’s brilliant when it comes to women’s health needs and can tell  by looking at a swollen belly or a puffy face if something isn’t right.  She knows the prayers to chant, the herbs to mix and the music to set those babies right and calm the mommas down.  She’s an angel.  And when she’s not needed, she’s a witch.  Dora, too, is labeled as a witch as a young girl simply because she was born a girl and doesn’t really belong anywhere.  And now that she’s spending so much time with Miss B, she’s becoming Super Witch.

Dora isn’t sure what she wants and when Miss B tells her she’s destined to take over the business of catching babies, she panics.  She’s too insignificant to be trusted with so much knowledge and with the lives of the town’s babies and women.

She loves Miss B and humors her by staying close and learning.  She decides not to decide and convinces herself that Miss B will live for a good long time and she won’t have to make a decision either way.

And then there’s Dr. Thomas.  Sure, lots of scientific advancements were happening all over the place and doctors were starting to better understand the inner workings of  the human body, but there was the whole problem of What In The Hell Is A Woman?  Clearly there is something wrong with us even under the best of circumstances.  Our wombs are made to bear children, so if you’re not pregnant, then you’re off balance.  But if you are pregnant you’re in a delicate mental state, but if you’re coddled, it’s just going to prove to you that you can boss your husband around.  Morning sickness?  You’re faking it to gain sympathy.  Can’t get pregnant?  You need to sit quietly and eat bread.

The most important thing to understand is that every emotion you’re feeling is a problem and can be cured.  And the way it can be cured is to let men tell you what to do, how to act, the proper way to respond, and make sure you’re maintaining the balance of life and your body by doing everything they say.  Or just stay out of the way and don’t let anyone notice you.  Make sure you’re pregnant.

Oh, and also?  Vibrators.

Man, things were bonkers in this crazy time of yesteryear!  Women were warned not to masturbate or terrible things would befall them.  You’ll start to pee yourself.  You’ll go blind.  Your voice won’t sound sweet.  You’ll become paralyzed.  You’ll morph into some fucked up creature that’s neither male or female.  It’s just not cool to touch yourself.

Now, if you’ll jump up here on the table and let me under your skirts, I’ll  pop in this vibrator and shake your womb clean!  Yep, huff and puff and soon you’ll be pregnant.  But this is not sexual at all.

So… we have this whole aspect of the insanity of women’s healthcare.  Wait, is this a present time book?  No?  So we’ve got all this shit sorted out and men understand how women’s bodies work and aren’t trying to control them or make policy on what can happen in regards to them?  Yes?  That has happened now?  Excellent.

On top of Dora not fitting in anywhere, not being trusted by the townsfolk, being accused of being a witch, and wanting to spend time with Miss B, our friend Dr. Thomas is doing everything he can to shut midwifery down and start the business of making money off of babies.  He’s running the brand new clinic in the big town and makes sure the men in all the nearby villages know that the true test of manhood is to be able to pay for your wife to get knocked the fuck out in the hospital and have her baby in comfort.  Sure, she’s going to be all sorts of wrecked on morphine and chloroform and your kid’s head is going to be gross and dented from being yanked out by forceps, but buddy, all this happened in a hospital and you paid for it!  Sure, Miss B doesn’t take a penny for her services and you might have dropped off a sack of potatoes or something, but this?  This is modern medicine!

Miss B is furious.  She plans on being there for any woman that needs her at any time and no doctor or law is going to make her stop.  Dora is also angry, but she’s also scared.  She knows the power men have and she sees them working with the respectable ladies in town to turn everyone against Miss B.  Before people might pretend not to notice when she was around, but now they are actively working against her and making sure everyone knows it’s illegal not to get medical help during a birth.

Oh, and on top of this?  Dora is going to get married.  I’m still not sure how that happened, but apparently the rich lady in town decided she was the perfect match for her son, so off they go to the altar.  Before that happens though, Archer, her husband to be, is going to humiliate her every chance he gets so she can prove that she is worthy of him by taking it.  Wait, what?  No, it makes sense when Dora explains it.  Seriously.

OK, so then a bunch of bad stuff happens, things get worse for Dora, things get REALLY worse for Dora, and then some cool things happen and then there’s a happy ending.

I did like the book a lot even if I was often arguing with myself by trying to figure out how I would have felt if I was me but born then, and how people who actually lived during this felt.  Someone in my book group made the obvious but smart statement that as soon as an author starts to write historical fiction, his or her spin is immediately all over the page.  You can’t be sympathetic to a character in your book without taking a stand.  And I don’t want a non-fiction account of what was happening.  I want feelings and emotions.  How female of me.

There were a few parts that felt a little forced, but I really liked the supporting cast of characters, so I was willing to accept the travels.

But man… the men in this book?  Holy cow do they not come off well.  Luckily there’s a few to try to tip the scales, but overall?  What a bunch of dicks!

I had already planned on watching the movie Hysteria because I am fascinated by the medicine of vibrators during a time of no touching of the no-no parts, and after reading this I’m even more interested in it.  When a woman is sent to the doctor to be calmed down with a vibrator, I’d like to know more about how that happened.

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One response to “#36: The Birth House by Ami McKay

  1. Pingback: pyrajane’s review #36: The Birth House by Ami McKay « Cannonball Read IV

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