Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Birth House

Dora Rare lives in the village of Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, early in the 20th century. It's an isolated spot, but not immune to the great events of the day -- WW1, the Halifax Explosion, the Spanish flu.

Dora has the dark hair and complexion of a Mi'kmaq ancestor, and is the only daughter in five generations. She learns midwifery and herbal remedies from an old woman with Acadian roots and a reputation for witchery.

This brings her into conflict with "modern" medicine, represented by a doctor who tries to entice the women of Scots Bay to his pricey clinic in Canning. According to him "morning sickness is neurotic in nature, the pregnant woman's way of gaining attention from a husband who is uncomfortable with his wife's condition."

However, some of the remedies that Dora uses sound equally batty.  "Bury the afterbirth with a scallop shell.  Gives a woman at least a year before she gets with child again."  She dispenses moon elixir, skullcap tincture, beaver brew.  

What is certain is that the book is a delightful blend of romance and history, an earthy and semi-magical world of darning eggs, moss babies, sex tips, Butterick patterns, Beaumont Hamel, the sinking of the Lusitania.  It's a time when women had names like Precious, Patience, and Experience.  And it contains one of the most memorable characters in Canadian fiction, Dora's tutor, Miss B.

My only complaint is the number of unpleasant men in the story.  Dora's husband Archer Bigelow is a worthless lout with an appetite for rough sex, Brady Ketch is a drunken brute, Dr. Thomas tries to pin a trumped-up murder charge on Dora, and the hypocritical Reverend Covert Norton gets in some extra-curricular boinking in (where else?) the church.  They're an unusually nasty bunch.

Scots Bay

Ami McKay is a transplanted American who lives in Scots Bay, in a house that provided the inspiration for the novel.  This tiny community is only 15 minutes away from our own home, and occasionally we head over there to walk along the beach.  We also attended a reading the author gave in nearby Canning.

Chapters has declared The Birth House as one of the best books of the decade.  Ami McKay's next novel, The Virgin Cure, is coming out in the fall.

Author's website  Birth House website