The Birth House

The Birth House

4.2 199
by Ami McKay

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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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Canadian radiojournalist McKay was unable to ferret out the life story of late midwife Rebecca Steele, who operated a Nova Scotia birthing center out of McKay's Bay of Fundy house in the early 20th century; the result of her unsatisfied curiousity is this debut novel. McKay writes in the voice of shipbuilder's daughter, Dora Rare, "the only daughter in five generations of Rares," who as a girl befriends the elderly and estranged Marie Babineau, long the local midwife (or traiteur), who claims to have marked Dora out from birth as her successor. After initial reluctance and increasingly intensive training, 17-year-old Dora moves in with Marie; on the eve of Dora's marriage to Archer Bigelow, Marie disappears, leaving Dora her practice. A difficult marriage, many difficult births, a patient's baby thrust on her to raise without warning and other crises (including WWI and the introduction of "clinical" birthing methods) ensue. Period advertisments, journal entries and letters to and from various characters give Dora's voice context. The book is more about the texture of Dora's life than plot, and McKay handles the proceedings with winning, unsentimental care. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this dazzling first novel, McKay takes her readers to an isolated rural community in Nova Scotia, where the men fish and log, and the women do everything in between. At 17, Dara Rare is taken under the wing of the aged midwife, Acadian Marie Babineau. Dara loves Marie fiercely and learns her wisdom and craft accordingly. Although Marie and Dara are occasionally viewed as witches, the local women rely on them until the arrival of Dr. Gilbert Thomas. He does his best to turn the local women away from traditional midwifery to his modern maternity hospital. The plotting leaves a lot to be desired, but McKay is such a wonderful storyteller with a strong sense of place and time that all is forgiven. The Indiana-born author now lives in Nova Scotia; this novel, a book club natural, has been a best seller in Canada since its publication early this spring and deserves the same status here. Highly recommended for all public libraries. Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Men may be dogs and romance a joke, but for two country midwives in early-20th-century Canada, there's always the joy of "catching" babies. Dora Rare is an anomaly, the first female to be born into the family for five generations. She and her six siblings, all boys, bunk down together in their home in Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, until her impoverished shipbuilder father sends her to live with Miss B., an elderly Cajun midwife. Dora, 17 and never been kissed, is soon assisting with a delivery, and Miss B. designates the young woman her successor. The midwife is not without enemies. It's 1917, and the money-grubbing Dr. Thomas has established his maternity home nearby, hoping to drive Miss B. out of business. But the old lady forces the doctor to admit he has yet to deliver his first baby. Meanwhile, a marriage is being arranged for Dora, to ladies' man Archer, son of the wealthy Widow Bigelow. Dora, who has low expectations ("A love affair in Scots Bay would just look foolish"), goes along. Archer drinks heavily, abuses her and disappears three months after the wedding. But Dora is coming into her own as a midwife (Miss B. has vanished). When Brady Ketch, the community's most vicious husband and father, dumps his battered 13-year-old daughter on her doorstep, Dora can't save the young mother, but delivers a healthy baby, aided by a crow's feather and some pepper. This is grim material, but McKay has a light touch, and narrator Dora goes her own sweet way, adopting the baby and sighing with relief when she learns Archer has drowned. She's not afraid to bar Dr. Thomas with a pitchfork when he tries to interrupt a delivery, or to eventually live with Archer's kindly brother Hart as his lover, nothis wife. This unclassifiable debut was a bestseller in Canada, helped no doubt by its challenging vision of old-fashioned midwives as feminist pioneers.
The State (Columbia)
[It] will educate and thoroughly charm you with its honesty and brilliant prose.
The State (Columbia
[It] will educate and thoroughly charm you with its honesty and brilliant prose.
The State (Columbia))
[It] will educate and thoroughly charm you with its honesty and brilliant prose.
From the Publisher
"The Birth House is a poignant, compassionate, bittersweet and nostalgic look at early 20th-century Nova Scotia…. Reading McKay’s novel is like dipping into a saner, more intimate, past; a past that’s long gone…. McKay is not only a new author to note, but one to look forward to with anticipation."
National Post

"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."
NOW (Toronto)

"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."
—Ottawa Citizen

"An astonishing debut, a book that will break your heart and take your breath away."
Ottawa Citizen

"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

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Read an Excerpt

The Birth House

A Novel
By Ami McKay

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Ami McKay
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0061135852

Chapter One

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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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