A Guardian For Mothers

In the month of May we celebrate mothers. We all share the universal experience of being born from a mother. One way or another we entered the world any way ranging from a natural birth at home to a cesarian section operation in a hospital.
In The Birth House author Ami McKay takes us back to the basics to visit the closely knit community of Scots Bay, Nova Scotia. Set in a WWI backdrop the people of "The Bay" are raised on brown bread, shad and tea. With no electricity, telephone or automobiles in the town, the community relies on the healing powers and advice of a midwife for a variety of ailments and childbirth assistance.
The story is told through the eyes of teenaged Dora Marie Rare who finds a kindred spirit in the towns old midwife, Miss Marie Babineau. A victim of gossip and somewhat of an outcast in social settings Miss B. is known as a witch, or an angel "as long as she’s got the gift whenever they need it." Free-spirited Dora considers herself to be a black sheep of sorts being the only girl born after five generations of the Rare family name. Dora was also born with a caul over her eyes. Miss B. sees this as a sign that she "sees more than us all." The old midwife decides to take Dora under her wing and teaches her the art of "catching babies.’ Dora learns tricks like blowing cayenne pepper off a feather to encourage a tired mother to push!
Contentions arise when Dr. Gilbert Thomas opens up a maternity home in a nearby town. The womens social groups topics soon turn from knitting and idle gossip to concerns about issues of women’s rights and control over their bodies. There ensues debates between the doctor encouraging the latest scientific medical procedures, metal tools and drugs and the traditional midwife who uses common sense intuition, prayers and natural herbal remedies.
The novel is wonderfully written with an interesting mix of characters, scenes and period references to a time of prohibition, rum running, book banning and burning. The author takes us along with Dora to visit Halifax at the time of the explosion and Boston during the suffragist movement for the women’s right to vote. The reader gets to follow Dora on her coming of age journey and witness her devotion to her craft despite modern time influences.
McKay draws you in to the story as if you are reading from an old scrapbook with the addition of newspaper clippings, advertisements, letters, herbal concoctions and even a recipe for Groaning Cake. I might try to bake this one myself but I won’t be mixing the batter in between contractions as traditionally recommended!
The author writes with a down to earth style and treats her story with a good dose of Acadian folklore and maritime traditions. Being from the East Coast myself I really enjoyed the local dialogue and colloquialisms. Like the midwives depicted in the novel McKay also displays a great deal of insight with her writing. Miss B. advised Dora "No matter what you do, someone always knew you would."
One thing for certain is we all owe some gratitude to midwives who act as spiritual guardians for mothers and help bring us into the world.
Something to think about...

Wanda Lynne Young

A Guardian For Mothers was published in the May '07 issue of Real Women Magazine in the Reader's Corner column.


Karabana said...

I will read this book... it's a good thing when I have to look up words (shad, caul) bc I know it's going to be an interesting read for me.

This also reminds me, I have to go buy cayenne pepper for tonight's chili, I'm out!

Wanda Lynne said...

Hey, don't even mention the word CAYENNE since I'm currently on my second day of that stupid master cleanse lemonade diet! I shouldn't complain since it seems to be working even if I ignore the caffeine deprivation induced headache.