January 24, 2011

The Birth House

Well, I can see why Ami McKay's "The Birth House" was selected as a finalist for CBC Canada Reads this year. McKay captures a particular time and place in Canada quite vividly and lovingly. As someone who has not ventured to the east coast of Canada, I must say she painted a beautiful picture. Not beautiful in that it was all "sunshine and roses", but rather the beauty of hardworking people who embraced their landscape...their environment.

This novel weaves pieces of Canadian history through it's pages. Set in the days of WWI, and encompassing the great Hamilton explosion to the devastation of the Spanish Flu. I must say the passages that dealt with the Spanish Flu had me wondering why I hadn't made it to the doctor's office yet for my shot this year!?

All of these moments in history were wrapped around the story of Dora Rare, a young woman who unwittingly becomes the small rural community midwife. In the beginning she is apprehensive, timid. By the end of the novel, having lost her mentor and lived through the death of her husband, Dora stands as a pillar of strength for the community.

I must say the debate over midwifery versus modern medicine (aka hospital birth) still exists today. In the past midwifery was thought of as witchcraft - that belief is gone. The debate in the year 2011 revolves around safety. The safety of the baby and the mother. Is it compromised when children are born at home and not in a hospital setting? I don't dare wade into this discussion.

From personal experience I have two children and two very different birth stories. My first child was born in hospital...during the SARS scare of 2003! Not the best time to have a baby. Aside from the crazy restrictions...I didn't have a "comfortable" delivery. Long story short, the narcotics I elected to take instead of an epidural, made me sick. I became so weak they had to use an epidural and administer saline. Unfortunately, no one realized the saline was pooling in my legs...thus my legs were HUGE and HEAVY. After they stopped the saline, we could get on with the delivery. My daughter was born on a Friday...and the doctors wouldn't release me until they had my doctor's approval...who on Monday morning said "what are you still doing here?"

My second daughter was born in my home bathtub, with the assistance of a midwife. Reading this book I felt like this birth was similar to the ones in the novel. My daughter was overdue so I was taking Black Cohosh. When that didn't work and we were 24 hours away from my being admitted to hospital I said give me all you've got...let's get this baby outta here! And so my experience with castor oil began! It worked. A few hours later I had a little baby girl. My mom and my older daughter listening from the next room...and able to hold the babe minutes after her birth. What a different experience.

I often refer to women's labour and delivery stories as the female equivalent to a man's fishing tale. "I caught a fish this big! Really." But for women the story goes "It was this terrible..." I try not to tell my stories too often. It's hard for time not to distort your memory.

Anyhow, I did enjoy this novel. Is it the best novel of all time? Maybe not. Did it educate me about the difficulties of living in rural Nova Scotia in the early 1900's? Definately. I can't wait to listen to the debates on February 7th.

Have you read "The Birth House"...what did you think?


  1. Hi there!

    I read this one. I bought it as a birthday gift for my mom, then after she finished it and gave it rave reviews, I read it. I loved it - thought it was a great book. Of course its hard not to think about your birth(s) when reading a story like this. It was so interesting to see the way medicalized vs. midwifery births were portrayed in the book - and the way things have changed now, and yet how some views still persist today. I agree that the Canadian history side of things was excellent, I always love a good story that weaves actual history through it and portrays the hardships and struggles that people went through.

  2. Hi Jen, I enjoyed reading your review of The Birth House and your own experiences. When I had my three daughters in the 80s, 'natural childbirth' was back in vogue and I had a good experience with each hospital birth, with a supportive doctor. I reviewed Birth House too, here:

    I liked Best Laid Plans as winner of Canada Reads and would have chosen Essex County as runner-up.