The Birth Houseby Ami McKay
The Birth House is the story of Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born in five generations of the Rare family. As a child in an isolated village in Nova Scotia, she is drawn to Miss Babineau, an outspoken Acadian midwife with a gift for healing and a kitchen filled with herbs and folk remedies. During the turbulent first years of World War I, Dora/em>… See more details below
The Birth House is the story of Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born in five generations of the Rare family. As a child in an isolated village in Nova Scotia, she is drawn to Miss Babineau, an outspoken Acadian midwife with a gift for healing and a kitchen filled with herbs and folk remedies. During the turbulent first years of World War I, Dora becomes the midwife's apprentice. Together, they help the women of Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labors, breech births, unwanted pregnancies and even unfulfilling sex lives.
But when Gilbert Thomas, a brash medical doctor, comes to Scots Bay with promises of fast, painless childbirth, some of the women begin to question Miss Babineau's methods—and after Miss Babineau's death, Dora is left to carry on alone. In the face of fierce opposition, she must summon all of her strength to protect the birthing traditions and wisdom that have been passed down to her.
Filled with details that are as compelling as they are surprising—childbirth in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion, the prescribing of vibratory treatments to cure hysteria and a mysterious elixir called Beaver Brew—Ami McKay has created an arresting and unforgettable portrait of the struggles that women faced to have control of their own bodies and to keep the best parts of tradition alive in the world of modern medicine.
"From the beginning of Ami McKay’s debut novel, The Birth House, we know we’re in for a bit of magic…. The Birth House is compelling and lively, beautifully conjuring a close-knit community and reminding us, as Dora notes, that the miracle happens not in birth but in the love that follows."
—The Globe and Mail
"The Birth House is filled with charming detail.… McKay has a quiet and lyrical style that suits her subject.… [It is] a story of individual human tenderness and endurance…. McKay is clearly a talented writer with a subtle sense of story, one that readers will look forward to hearing from, again and again."
—The Gazette (Montreal)
"She’s dug deep into Maritime history to tell a story that rips right along…. You can tell that McKay’s got the goods."
"The Birth House is bound to be one of the most read novels of 2006…. Authentic, gripping and totally compassionate … The Birth House will be there next fall when they hand out the literary nominations."
—The Sun Times (Owen Sound)
"An altogether remarkable work from an impressive new talent."
"An astonishing debut, a book that will break your heart and take your breath away."
"Fresh as a loaf of homemade bread just out of the oven, The Birth House, a tale of sex, birth, love and pain will more than satisfy the hungry reader."
—Joan Clark, author of An Audience of Chairs
"The moon over Nova Scotia must have extra magic in it to have fostered a writer of Ami McKay’s lyrical sway and grace. She retrieves our social history and lays it out before us in a collage of vivid, compelling detail. In McKay’s depiction of Dora Rare, an early twentieth century midwife, attention is paid to the day-to-day moments of love and tending that enable humans to endure. And we the readers get to witness the emergence of a powerful new voice in Canadian writing."
—Marjorie Anderson, co-editor of Dropped Threads I and II
"Ami McKay is a marvellous storyteller who writes with a haunting and evocative voice. The novel offers a world of mystery and wisdom, a world where tradition collides with science, where life and death meet under the moon. With a startling sense of time and place The Birth House travels through a landscape that is at once deeply tender and exquisitely harsh. McKay is possessed with a brilliant narrative gift."
—Christy Ann Conlin, author of Heave
"Reading Ami McKay’s first novel is like rummaging through a sea-chest found in a Nova Scotian attic. Steeped in lore and landscape, peppered with journal entries, newspaper clippings and advertisements, this marvellous ‘literary scrapbook’ captures the harsh realities of the seacoast community of Scots Bay, Nova Scotia during WWI. With meticulous detail and visceral description, McKay weaves a compelling story of a woman who fights to preserve the art of midwifery, reminding us of the need, in changing times, for acts of bravery, kindness, and clear-sightedness."
—Beth Powning, author of The Hatbox Letters
- HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt
The Birth HouseA Novel
By Ami McKay
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Ami McKay
All right reserved.
Ever since I can remember, people have had more than enough to say about me. As the only daughter in five generations of Rares, most figure I was changed by faeries or not my father's child. Mother works and prays too hard to have anyone but those with the cruellest of tongues doubt her devotion to my father. When there's no good explanation for something, people of the Bay find it easier to believe in mermaids and moss babies, to call it witchery and be done with it. Long after the New England Planters' seed wore the Mi'kmaq out of my family's blood, I was born with coal black hair, cinnamon skin and a caul over my face. A foretelling. A sign. A gift that supposedly allows me to talk to animals, see people's deaths and hear the whisperings of spirits. A charm for protection against drowning.
When one of Laird Jessup's Highland heifers gave birth to a three-legged albino calf, talk followed and people tried to guess what could have made such a creature. In the end, most people blamed me for it. I had witnessed the cow bawling her calf onto the ground. I had been the one who ran to the Jessups' to tell the young farmer about the strange thing that had happened. Dora talked to ghosts, Dora ate bat soup, Dora slit theDevil's throat and flew over the chicken coop. My classmates chanted that verse between the slats of the garden gate, along with all the other words their parents taught them not to say. Of course, there are plenty of schoolyard stories about Miss B. too, most of them ending with, if your cat or your baby goes missing, you'll know where to find the bones. It's talk like that that's made us such good friends. Miss B. says she's glad for gossip. "It keep folks from comin' to places they don't belong."
Most days I wake up and say a prayer. I want, I wish, I wait for something to happen to me. While I thank God for all good things, I don't say this verse to Him, or to Jesus or even to Mary. They are far too busy to be worrying about the affairs and wishes of my heart. No, I say my prayer more to the air than anything else, hoping it might catch on the wind and find its way to anything, to something that's mine. Mother says, a young lady should take care with what she wishes for. I'm beginning to think she's right.
Yesterday was fair for a Saturday in October--warm, with no wind and clear skies--what most people call fool's blue. It's the kind of sky that begs you to sit and look at it all day. Once it's got you, you'll soon forget whatever chores need to be done, and before you know it, the day's gone and you've forgotten the luck that's to be lost when you don't get your laundry and yourself in out of the cold. Mother must not have noticed it . . . before breakfast was over, she'd already washed and hung two baskets of laundry and gotten a bushel of turnips ready for Charlie and me to take to Aunt Fran's. On the way home, I spotted a buggy tearing up the road. Before the thing could run us over, the driver pulled the horses to a stop, kicking up rocks and dust all over the place. Tom Ketch was driving, and Miss Babineau sat in the seat next to him. She called out to me, "Goin' out to Deer Glen to catch a baby and I needs an extra pair of hands. Come on, Dora."
Even though I'd been visiting her since I was a little girl (stopping by to talk to her while she gardened, or bringing her packages up from the post), I was surprised she'd asked me to come along. When my younger brothers were born and Miss B. came to the house, I begged to stay, but my parents sent me to Aunt Fran's instead. Outside of watching farmyard animals and a few litters of pups, I didn't have much experience with birthing. I shook my head and refused. "You should ask someone else. I've never attended a birth . . ."
She scowled at me. "How old are you now, fifteen, sixteen?"
She laughed and reached out her wrinkled hand to me. "Mary-be. I was half your age when I first started helpin' to catch babies. You've been pesterin' me about everything under the sun since you were old enough to talk. You'll do just fine."
Marie Babineau's voice carries the sound of two places: the dancing, Cajun truth of her Louisiana past and the quiet-steady way of talk that comes from always working at something, from living in the Bay. Some say she's a witch, others say she's more of an angel. Either way, most of the girls in the Bay (including me) have the middle initial of M, for Marie. She's not a blood relative to anyone here, but we've always done our part to help take care of her. My brothers chop her firewood and put it up for the winter while Father makes sure her windows and the roof on her cabin are sound. Whenever we have extra preserves, or a loaf of bread, or a basket of apples, Mother sends me to deliver them to Miss B. "She helped bring all you children into this world, and she saved your life, Dora. Brought your fever down when there was nothing else I could do. Anything we have is hers. Anything she asks, we do."
Excerpted from The Birth House by Ami McKay Copyright © 2006 by Ami McKay. Excerpted by permission.
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