The Birth House
Ami McKay, 2006
The Birth House 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. Dora becomes Miss B.’s apprentice, and together they help the women of Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labours, breech births, unwanted pregnancies and even unfulfilling sex lives.
Filled with details as compelling as they are surprising, The Birth House is an unforgettable tale of the struggles women have faced to have control of their own bodies and to keep the best parts of tradition alive in the world of modern medicine. (From the publisher.)
• Birth— N/A
• Where—Indiana, USA
• Education—Indiana State University
• Awards—3 CBA Libris Awards; nominated for Int'l. IMPAC
Dublin Literary Award
• Currently—lives in the Bay of Funday, Canada
Ami McKay's work has aired on CBC radio's Maritime Magazine, This Morning, OutFront, and The Sunday Edition. Her documentary, Daughter of Family G, won an Excellence in Journalism Meallion at the 2003 Atlantic Journalism Awards. When she moved with her family to Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, she learned that their new home was once known as the birth house. (From the publisher.)
The Birth House is a poignant, compassionate, bittersweet and nostalgic look at early 20th-century Nova Scotia…. Reading McKay’s novel is like dipping into a saner, more intimate, past; a past that’s long gone…. McKay is not only a new author to note, but one to look forward to with anticipation.
National Post (Canada)
From the beginning of Ami McKay’s debut novel, The Birth House, we know we’re in for a bit of magic…. The Birth House is compelling and lively, beautifully conjuring a close-knit community and reminding us, as Dora notes, that the miracle happens not in birth but in the love that follows.
Globe and Mail (Canada)
The Birth House is filled with charming detail.… McKay has a quiet and lyrical style that suits her subject.… [It is] a story of individual human tenderness and endurance…. McKay is clearly a talented writer with a subtle sense of story, one that readers will look forward to hearing from, again and again.
An astonishing debut, a book that will break your heart and take your breath away.
Canadian radio-journalist McKay was unable to ferret out the life story of late midwife Rebecca Steele, who operated a Nova Scotia birthing center out of McKay's Bay of Fundy house in the early 20th century; the result of her unsatisfied curiousity is this debut novel. McKay writes in the voice of shipbuilder's daughter, Dora Rare, "the only daughter in five generations of Rares," who as a girl befriends the elderly and estranged Marie Babineau, long the local midwife (or traiteur), who claims to have marked Dora out from birth as her successor. After initial reluctance and increasingly intensive training, 17-year-old Dora moves in with Marie; on the eve of Dora's marriage to Archer Bigelow, Marie disappears, leaving Dora her practice. A difficult marriage, many difficult births, a patient's baby thrust on her to raise without warning and other crises (including WWI and the introduction of "clinical" birthing methods) ensue. Period advertisments, journal entries and letters to and from various characters give Dora's voice context. The book is more about the texture of Dora's life than plot, and McKay handles the proceedings with winning, unsentimental care.
In this dazzling first novel, McKay takes her readers to an isolated rural community in Nova Scotia, where the men fish and log, and the women do everything in between. At 17, Dara Rare is taken under the wing of the aged midwife, Acadian Marie Babineau. Dara loves Marie fiercely and learns her wisdom and craft accordingly. Although Marie and Dara are occasionally viewed as witches, the local women rely on them until the arrival of Dr. Gilbert Thomas. He does his best to turn the local women away from traditional midwifery to his modern maternity hospital. The plotting leaves a lot to be desired, but McKay is such a wonderful storyteller with a strong sense of place and time that all is forgiven. The Indiana-born author now lives in Nova Scotia; this novel, a book club natural, has been a best seller in Canada since its publication early this spring and deserves the same status here. Highly recommended for all public libraries. —Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR.
Men may be dogs and romance a joke, but for two country midwives in early-20th-century Canada, there's always the joy of "catching" babies. Dora Rare is an anomaly, the first female to be born into the family for five generations. She and her six siblings, all boys, bunk down together in their home in Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, until her impoverished shipbuilder father sends her to live with Miss B., an elderly Cajun midwife. Dora, 17 and never been kissed, is soon assisting with a delivery, and Miss B. designates the young woman her successor. The midwife is not without enemies. It's 1917, and the money-grubbing Dr. Thomas has established his maternity home nearby, hoping to drive Miss B. out of business. But the old lady forces the doctor to admit he has yet to deliver his first baby. Meanwhile, a marriage is being arranged for Dora, to ladies' man Archer, son of the wealthy Widow Bigelow. Dora, who has low expectations ("A love affair in Scots Bay would just look foolish"), goes along. Archer drinks heavily, abuses her and disappears three months after the wedding. But Dora is coming into her own as a midwife (Miss B. has vanished). When Brady Ketch, the community's most vicious husband and father, dumps his battered 13-year-old daughter on her doorstep, Dora can't save the young mother, but delivers a healthy baby, aided by a crow's feather and some pepper. This is grim material, but McKay has a light touch, and narrator Dora goes her own sweet way, adopting the baby and sighing with relief when she learns Archer has drowned. She's not afraid to bar Dr. Thomas with a pitchfork when he tries to interrupt a delivery, or to eventually live with Archer's kindly brother Hart as his lover, not his wife. This unclassifiable debut was a bestseller in Canada, helped no doubt by its challenging vision of old-fashioned midwives as feminist pioneers.
1. Early in the novel, Dora’s Aunt Fran quotes from The Science of a New Life: "It is almost impossible for a woman to read the current 'love and murder' literature of the day and have pure thoughts, and when the reading of such literature is associated with idleness—as it almost invariably is—a woman’s thoughts and feelings cannot be other than impure and sensual." How does reading shape Dora’s view of the world? How does her love of books play into her relationship with her father? With Miss B.? With Archer?
2. Dora makes the following observation after attending her first birth: "How a mother comes to love her child, her caring at all for this thing that’s made her heavy, lopsided and slow, this thing that made her wish she were dead … that’s the miracle." What do you think she meant? Do you feel this is true?
3. Folklore, home remedies, women’s traditions, herbalism, and a belief in the divine feminine are all part of Miss B.’s way of life. She is determined to pass these things along to Dora. Does Dora try hard enough to preserve them? Should she let them go? In your own life, what traditions matter most to you (and why)?
4. According to medical texts and advertisements of the early 1900’s, women who were prone to "emotional behaviour" were often labeled as hysterical. A poster in Dr. Thomas's office reads:
Feeling Anxious? Tired? Weepy? You are not alone. The modernization of society has brought about an increase in neurasthenia, greensickness and hysteria. Symptoms of Neurasthenia include: Weeping, melancholy, anxiety, irritability, depression, outrageousness, insomnia, mental and physical weariness, idle talking, sudden fevers, morbid fears, frequent titillation, forgetfulness, palpitations of the heart, headaches, writing cramps, mental confusion, constant worry and fear of impending insanity. Talk to your physician. He can help.
Do we see this kind of questioning today? Are women's emotions still targeted by advertisers?
5. When Archer asks Dora to marry him, he tells her that "love takes care of herself." Dora chooses to say yes. What does Dora’s decision say about her situation and station in life? Do you think she should have chosen to follow in Miss B.'s footsteps instead?
6. Through a visit to Dr. Thomas’s office, Dora discovers that women’s sexual pleasure (specifically orgasm) is considered to be a medical function (or dysfunction). Ads of the time, such as the one for the White Cross Vibrator, reinforced this notion. How does Dora come to terms with these ideas? What kinds of taboos, if any, surround women’s sexuality today?
7. Miss B. says this about Mabel’s home birth: “The scent of a good groanin’ cake, a cuppa hot Mother’s Tea and time. Most times that’s all a mama needs on the day her baby comes.” She later says this to Dr. Thomas: "Science don’t know kindness. It don’t know kindness from cabbage." Dr. Thomas replies, "Science is neither kind nor unkind, Miss Babineau. Science is exact." How do these statements show the differences between Miss B. and Dr. Thomas? In moving the birthing experience from homes and birth houses to hospitals, what have women lost? What have they gained?
8. After Dora discovers Aunt Fran’s affair with Reverend Norton, she writes: "He’s been seeing her. He's noticed her so much that now she's his." Why do you think Dora decided to keep it a secret? Should she have told someone? What would you have done?
9. Dora says this about her mother: "Everything I’ve learned from Mother, every bit of her truth, has been said while her hands were moving." What does this say about her relationship with her mother? Is this kind of communication still an important part of women’s lives?
10. The author includes ephemera from Dora's life (invitations, news articles, sections from The Willow Book, folk tales, advertisements, etc.) throughout the novel. How did this affect your reading experience? Do you have a favourite from them?
11. There are many mentions of birthing folklore and techniques, from groaning cake to mother's tea, from Miss B. turning Ginny's breech baby to quilling. What wives' tales about pregnancy and birth have you heard? Are there any that you'd swear by?
12. The sisters of the Occasional Knitters Society support Dora throughout the book (keeping the secret of Wrennie's birth, taking care of Wrennie when Dora goes to Boston, meeting together for conversations and sisterhood). What makes their friendship so strong? Do you think friendships like that are still possible today?
13. Mrs. Ketch comes to her house for help, Dora feels conflicted. Given Dora's history with Mrs. Ketch, why do you think she chose to assist her in helping her "lose" her baby?
14. Maxine is unlike anyone Dora has ever met before. Boston is very different from Scots Bay. What do Maxine and Boston bring to Dora's life? Have you ever made a change in location or met someone who immediately changed your life?
15. In both the prologue and the epilogue, we see how, over time, life has changed in Scots Bay. Other towns in other places have changed too—some have disappeared forever. What do you think we have gained with these changes? What have we lost?
16. After Dora and Hart become lovers, he talks of marriage and she refuses. Why do you think she is so determined not to marry him?
17. In the epilogue, Dora reflects on her past and what the birth house has meant to her and to the community. There is a sense of change, but also a sense of traditions preserved and lessons learned. What thoughts will you take away from The Birth House?
(Questions issued by publishers.)
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