This month we are discussing The Birth House by Ami McKay. I’ll start by giving you my reflections on the book, then I’ve provided discussion questions below for everyone to share. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
I’ll announce next month’s book later today, so check back in a few hours!
Dora Rare started her life remarkably. The first girl in a long line of Rare boys, her auspicious beginning foretold of a unusual future. Dora was never interested in things the other girls enjoyed, the doll houses and tea parties. Instead she preferred the company of her brothers, playing at the barn or the beach.
As Dora came into adolescence, she befriended an old Creole midwife named Miss B, who some in their small Nova Scotia town regarded as a witch despite the fact that all of them called on her for assistance. As their friendship blossomed, Dora began making weekly visits to Miss B’s cabin for tea and conversation. Soon, she was living with and assisting Miss B in the births of local babies, learning the secrets and natural remedies passed down for generations.
Set in the early 1900’s, The Birth House focuses largely on the role midwifery played in society at the time and the conflicts created by the emerging field of modern medicine. The arrival of Dr. Thomas in a nearby town directly pitted Miss B’s traditional ways against the burgeoning field of obstetrics. I read this book while expecting my first child, and I was fascinated to hear some of the methods and mindsets around childbirth described in the book. I felt the author was a little heavy handed at times, portraying Dr. Thomas as a disengaged and threatening antagonist, but it made for some lively scenes. I quietly chuckled to myself when Dora poured molasses on the “good doctor’s” head at the general store, followed by a newspaper clipping of the incident.
After Miss B’s death, Dora carries the torch and continues helping local women with everything from childbirth to cough syrup. I loved the way the author blended the natural remedies of Miss B’s “Willow Book” into the story. There are a number of them on my list I’m interested to try myself.
As all of this unfolds, we also get the story of Dora’s blossoming into a young woman, and the pressure she feels to conform. When the local heartthrob, Archer Bigelow, sets his sights on Dora, she feels she has no option but to give in. I felt maddened by her lack of choices, especially after Dora and Archer marry and he shows his true character as a brutish, petulant husband. Her needs and interests were completely ignored as she was expected to play the dutiful wife.
The majority of characters in the book are women, and each gives a different perspective on the roles of women in society a century ago. Aunt Fran is the hypocritical do-gooder and society maven. Precious is the naïve and precocious young cousin, searching for her own path. The women of the Occasional Knitters Club offer valuable insights into their own lives and relationships, giving perspective and support to Dora. I loved the candidness and richness the author gave the conversations of the OKC – I felt like I was part of the club, comparing notes with my own experiences.
Ultimately, Dora finds her way and settles into a comfortable (if untraditional) life. I appreciated that the book didn’t end with a major revelation or rebellion on Dora’s part, but instead showed her resolve to quietly forge a fulfilling life for herself in an imperfect society. She gained much wisdom from her experiences and learned to be true to herself. Overall, I found the book to be relatable and realistic with themes that transcended the historical setting. I’d definitely recommend this book, especially to mothers (and future mothers) or anyone interested in a fictional, historical perspective on childbirth.
Here are a few discussion questions for The Birth House. I’d love to hear your comments!
- Who was your favorite character in the book? Least favorite?
- Did this book resound for those of you who are mothers? Not mothers?
- What did you think of the portrayal and juxtaposition of Miss B’s and the doctor’s treatments?
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