Superbly crafted...powerful. It will thrill readers who cherish their worn copies of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Among the many achievements of this gripping, insightful novel is the remarkable fullness with which Bohjalian (Water Witches) writes about both the physicality and the spirituality of childbirth.
OB/GYN physician Connie Danforth looks back on the events of a wrenching summer when she was 14 and her mother, Sibyl, a Vermont midwife and ex-hippie with a "distaste for most traditional and institutional authority," was on trial for murder. Sybil has successfully home-delivered more than 500 babies, but one freezing March night, the phone line down and the roads impassable, the laboring woman she is attending suddenly suffers what appears to be a fatal stroke. Sibyl saves the child with an emergency C-section only to find herself arrested after her assistant tells police that the operation was performed on a still-living woman. Is there, in fact, blood on Sibyl's hands? Or is she just a target of the hostile New England medical community, whose persecution of midwives dates back to the 17th-century expulsion of Anne Hutchinson from the Massachusetts Bay? As Connie wrestles with increasing doubts about whether or not her mother acted correctly, the Danforth family struggles to remain intact in the face of community ostracism and unrelenting media scrutiny.
Readers will find themselves mesmerized by the irresistible momentum of the narrative and by Bohjalian's graceful and lucid, irony-laced prose. His warm, vivid evocations of child-bearing capture the wonder and terror of bringing a baby into the world. With acutely sensitive character delineation, he manages to present all the participants in this drama, from the family members to the grieving widower, as complex, fully realized individuals. This is a story with no obvious villains or heroes, which only renders the tragedy all the more haunting.
Bohjalian (Water Witches, 1995, etc.) blends some provocative moral, medical, and political issues into a classic coming-of-age story in this To Kill a Mockingbird-like reminiscence of the murder trial of a midwife, as witnessed by her teenaged daughter.
From the day back in the '60s when Sibyl Danforth stepped forward in an emergency to help a pregnant friend give birth, she fell in love with the birthing process and dedicated herself to a calling as a lay midwife in rural Vermont. But as her obstetrician daughter, Connie, points out, Sibyl never bothered to obtain certification from the American College of Nurse-Midwives. Still, neighbors who wanted to have their babies at home felt comfortable calling on her. Among Sibyl's patients in 1981, the year Connie turned 14, was a minister's wife named Charlotte Bedford, a fragile woman whose incredibly difficult labor led to a stroke and what appeared to be Charlotte's death. Prevented by a heavy snowstorm from getting Charlotte to a hospital, Sibyl frantically tried to save the baby's life by performing an emergency cesarean on the presumably dead woman. Only after Charlotte is carted away does the question arise: Was the woman actually dead when Sibyl cut her open? In a strong, ruminative voice, Connie re-creates that terrible year when the state's attorney, Charlotte Bedford's family, the local medical community, and even members of the Danforths' small hometown seemed to conspire to put not just Sibyl but the entire practice of home birthing on trial. Connie, fearing witch-huntstyle reprisals, eventually broke the law to protect her beloved mother's freedom. But the question remains: Did Sibyl kill Charlotte for the sake of her baby?
Rich in moral ambiguity, informative to a fault on the methods and politics of childbirth, and perceptive regarding the whipsawing desires and loyalties of a perfectly normal teenaged girl: a compelling, complex novel and the strongest yet from the talented Bohjalian.
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