The Midwife's Tale

Overview

“I come from a long line of midwives,” narrates Elizabeth Whitely. “I was expected to follow Mama, follow Granny, follow Great-granny. In the end, I didn’t disappoint them.

Or perhaps I did. After all, there were no more midwives after me.”For generations, the women in Elizabeth’s family have brought life to Kettle Valley, West Virginia, heeding a destiny to tend its women with herbals, experience, and wisdom. But Elizabeth, who has comforted so many, has lost her heart to the one man who cannot reciprocate, ...

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2003 Hard cover New in fine dust jacket. Qtr. brown cloth & paper over boards. 256 p. Fiction: Elizabeth Whitely comes from a long line of West Virginia midwives, but having no ... children of her own and in a poor marriage, finds the necessary qualities and interest in her step-daughter. Setting: prewar Appalachia and its mythologies. Read more Show Less

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2003-04 Hardcover First Edition New NEW: First Edition, First printing with a complete # line for you collectors. Hardcover with Dust Jacket no markings or creases, no price ... clippings to dust jacket, not a Book Club Edition and no remainder marks. Satisfaction Guaranteed. Ships next business day or sooner. Read more Show Less

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Midwife's Tale

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Overview

“I come from a long line of midwives,” narrates Elizabeth Whitely. “I was expected to follow Mama, follow Granny, follow Great-granny. In the end, I didn’t disappoint them.

Or perhaps I did. After all, there were no more midwives after me.”For generations, the women in Elizabeth’s family have brought life to Kettle Valley, West Virginia, heeding a destiny to tend its women with herbals, experience, and wisdom. But Elizabeth, who has comforted so many, has lost her heart to the one man who cannot reciprocate, even when she moves into his home to share his bed and raise his child.

Then Lauren Denniker, Elizabeth’s adopted daughter, begins to display a miraculous gift--just as Elizabeth learns that she herself is unable to have a child. How Elizabeth comes to free herself from a loveless relationship, grapple with Lauren’s astonishing abilities, and come to terms with her own emptiness is the compelling heart of this remarkable tale. Incorporating the spirited mountain mythology of prewar Appalachia, Gretchen Laskas has crafted a story as true to our time as its own, and a cast of characters as poignant as they are entirely original.


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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Set in pre-World War 1 West Virginia, this novel flows along like the tributaries that feed the book's Appalachian foothills, as narrator Elizabeth Whitely traces the arc of four generations of midwives in her family, she being the last of the line. Poverty, lack of clean water, unemployment, and an influenza epidemic, and severe weather also figure in the often melancholy tale. Laskas has injected many period details into her first book and alot of verve into her characters to make them come alive. Elizabeth doesn't leave much to the imagination as she details the sights, sounds, smells, and touch of delivering a baby. Growing out of a storytelling tradition, this is more than just a book about babies and midwives. It is also about complex relationships between mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters, friends and lovers and all about the inheritance of and passing on of family traditions. Laskas deftly incorporates other threads into the book, including an examination of faith healing, gossip, and outsider status in a tight-knit community.
Starred Review 3/15/30
Lisa Nussbaum
A deeply affecting, beautifully written story, this is highly recommended for public and academic libraries.
Robert Morgan
Gretchen Laskas opens a door to a world so real it aches and thrills. I could not put down this story of complicated romance, hard wisdom, enduring loyalties, and the miracles one person can bring to another.
Kirkus Reviews
Evocative storytelling!
Cleveland Plain Dealer
Laskas does a masterful job of capturing both a time and a place….She is a writer to watch.
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Haunting and evocative…Laskas has created a moving, spirited tale steeped in mountain lore and Appalachian mythology.
Roanoke Times
[A] Stunning first novel.
Bloomsbury Review
[An] endearing debut…[written] with clarity and a delightful storytelling ease.
First For Women Magazine
A warm, wonderful novel.
Raleigh News Observer
Laskas keeps up a lively pace, moving from one episode to another with the ease of a seasoned storyteller.
Romance Reviews Today
A Perfect Ten.
January Magazine
The book is like a literary time machine, transporting the reader to another world, another era with just the turn of a page.
Working Woman Magazine
[A] Must Read.
Book Street USA
Spare and affecting.
Library Journal
Set in pre-World War I West Virginia, this novel flows along like the tributaries that feed the book's Appalachian foothills, as narrator Elizabeth Whitely traces the arc of four generations of midwives in her family, she being the last of the line. Poverty, lack of clean water, unemployment, an influenza epidemic, and severe weather also figure in this often melancholy tale. Laskas has injected many period details into her first book and a lot of verve into her characters to make them come alive. Elizabeth doesn't leave much to the imagination as she details the sights, sounds, smells, and touch of delivering a baby. Growing out of a storytelling tradition, this is much more than just a book about babies and midwives. It is also about the complex relationships between mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughers, friends and lovers and about the inheritance of and passing on of family traditions. Laskas deftly incorporates other threads into the book, including an examination of faith healing, gossip, and outsider status in a tight-knit community. A deeply affecting, beautifully written story, this is highly recommended for public and academic libraries.-Lisa Nussbaum, Dauphin Cty. Lib. Syst., Harrisburg, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Family saga and first novel by Laskas (stories: Fifty Acres and a Poodle, 2000) about the travails of three generations of backwoods women who serve as midwives. The Whitely women have been midwives for as long as any of their West Virginia neighbors can remember. We enter their world through the eyes of Elizabeth Whitely, a teenager in the years just before WWI and somewhat reluctantly learning the trade from her mother. Elizabeth is a bit delicate for the grueling work of midwifery-and horrified at its seamier aspects, like the mercy killings that are sometimes asked for. But she is also awed by childbirth, including the "miracle babies" who are born dead but come to life in their mothers' arms. One of these is Lauren Denniker, daughter of Ivy and Alvin, whom Elizabeth brought into the world. Ivy and Alvin are unhappily married, and Elizabeth is secretly in love with Alvin. When Ivy dies, Elizabeth moves in with Alvin as his common-law wife and raises Lauren as her own. She and Alvin try to have another child, but, cruelly, Elizabeth turns out to be barren. As Lauren grows, Elizabeth becomes aware of an ethereal quality about her-and discovers that (at age eight) Lauren has the gift of healing. Alvin and Elizabeth manage to keep Lauren's powers secret for a while, but when the girl cures a dying baby, her fame spreads, and to keep his daughter from being turned into a circus freak, Alvin moves to California with her, leaving Elizabeth behind. Elizabeth stays on miserably, delivering babies and trying to forget her own loneliness. She falls in love with David Newland, a circus performer, and the two settle down together. Happily married, Elizabeth is still tormented by her inability tohave children. When Lauren returns, years later, to visit her stepmother, Elizabeth knows what she needs to ask for. Evocative storytelling, though the atmosphere of strong backwoods women eventually becomes as suffocating as a henhouse in July. Agent: Mel Berger/William Morris
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385335515
  • Publisher: Dell Publishing
  • Publication date: 4/1/2003
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 8.42 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Gretchen Moran Laskas is an eighth-generation West Virginian. She now lives in Virginia with her husband and son.


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Read an Excerpt

One

If you were born in Kettle Creek or hereabouts on our part of the Tygart River Valley, your name was written in the ledgers that lined our shelves. They were tall black leather books, shiny and thin like the ones Greeley MacIntosher used over at the store in Philippi. With a good birth we came home and wrote the baby’s full name, the mama’s name, the daddy’s, and the date. All those lists of names should tell you that our family was good at what we do.

We never talked about the ledgers to anyone but ourselves. Not that we were ashamed–these were just names after all, but on account of the babies who didn’t come through–and the pain that such knowledge brought. Most babies like that didn’t even have names given them, and when Mama thought me old enough to know, she showed me the lists of Baby Girl Teller, or Baby Boy Switzer, if the woman was far enough along to tell. No matter what, we recorded the names and anything else we could recall about the birthing itself.

“Write it down,” Mama told me. “Everything.” She was the first to do this, marking little things about the birth that weren’t so important in and of themselves, but might be later, when you needed to see the history of the family. Granny Whitely and Granny Denniker had kept most everything in their heads–all but the names and dates. “A written record is more reliable,” Mama taught me. And she was right. Kettle Valley is full of Teller, Meroe, and Switzer families, and writing things down kept names and families straight. For a midwife, confusing a family history was one of the worst things you could do,as confusion might make a bad situation worse if you needed to choose the right tonic, or know just when to make a cut.

I learned to read looking at those ledgers. Mama taught me herself, using the family Bible once the black books were mastered. Given the number of Hezekiahs and Micahs and Ruths and Mordecais I read about, it was often difficult to remember which ones were biblical wonders and which lived along the Philippi road. Sometimes, even when I read the scriptures now, I can’t be sure I didn’t once hear that King David’s wife Abigail had given birth to a little girl weighing more than twelve pounds. Fortunately, around the turn of the century, fashionable names changed–Henry, Otis, Maurice.

Mama didn’t tell me about the little red book, which she kept hidden until I was seventeen and had been attending births for more than three years. I suppose she thought I wasn’t ready for it, and that was truth, for I wasn’t. Don’t know when I might of been ready, natural-like, but I found out about it because Sarah Meroe went into labor right at the same time as Old Lady Whipple. Old Man Whipple was a justice of the peace and was known for making things rough for people who didn’t please him, so when he came, Mama went with him, leaving me to handle Sarah’s birthing all alone.

“Ain’t like Old Lady Whipple needs the help,” I muttered to Mama as she gathered her things and helped me prepare my bag. I’d never had a bag packed just for me before. I was scared to be attending Sarah, who was a little bitty thing known for her snorty laugh and big brown eyes–eyes that had nearly swelled shut during her confinement.

“Hush, Elizabeth,” Mama told me. Her face looked white, the deep red of her hair shockingly dark against her skin. I wondered what Mama knew about Old Lady Whipple that I didn’t. That high-and-mighty woman had brought out fifteen children, and I couldn’t see that one more would make much difference.

“You’ll have to make do,” Mama told me. Then she smiled, reached out, and smoothed my hair. “You’re a fine midwife,” she said. Already her voice had that birthing tone–as strong and sure as a bell ringing in winter. With that voice she called to women through the fiery pain of childbearing when there was nothing more she could do with her hands in their bellies. I coveted my mama’s voice more than anything she owned.

“I’ll try,” I said, my own voice weak as well water.

So I did, and everything went fine. I came home, my steps almost dancing on the path before me. My body hummed and stirred like one who has witnessed a great joy–and I had, as Sarah’s baby had been a big boy who looked just like his daddy. A good dose of black cherry tea had calmed what trouble Sarah had suffered towards the end, and I was feeling proud and happy. I could hear the sound of Kettle Creek bubbling over rocks as I went into the house.

Mama was already home, sitting in her chair, staring into the fireplace where she’d built a roaring fire. She didn’t greet me when I arrived, but I didn’t pay her any mind, so busy was I writing down Ernest Meroe’s name in the black ledger. The first I had ever recorded in my own handwriting.

I noticed then that Mama had written nothing from her own birthing. “Didn’t it go well?” I asked.

“Well enough, I guess,” Mama said, her voice flat and wearied.

“Didn’t they name it yet?” Sometimes families couldn’t agree upon a name, but usually this was only over the first baby, when the father was still interested, or if the mother-in-law was living with them. I’d seen families squabble about a name for weeks. “Did they just run out of names?” I asked with a laugh. “After sixteen babies, surely no one cares.”

But Mama didn’t laugh with me, and this bothered me, seeing as she was a great one for laughing, even when no one else could see the joke. “Come sit down, Elizabeth,” she said. She was clutching a red book, her knuckles so white around the edges that I wondered that they didn’t snap. There were traces of blood and afterbirth rimmed around her fingernails.

“What is it?” I asked, curious now.

She reached out and handed me the little book, but she did not look at me. I turned the strange book over. The red leather cover was dusty and hard. When I opened it I saw a list of names, most familiar to me–names of folks living in Kettle Valley, just like those written in the black ledgers on the desk. There were family names, followed by a letter, a B or a G, sometimes followed by the letter D. I figured B was for boy and G was girl, but I wondered why we didn’t just write the names in the black ledger as we always did. At the very end was the name Whipple, with the letter G. There was no D.

“What’s the D for?” I asked, seeing it written after about every third name. The dates went back for more than fifty years, and I saw in the beginning names written in Granny Denniker’s handwriting–names that I had never heard tell of in all of Mama’s stories.

“Mama?” I asked, flipping the pages, filled with B’s and G’s and D’s. “What’s the D for?”

“Deformed,” Mama said. She covered her face with her hands, leaving bloody smudges across her freckled skin. “Means the baby came out and there was something wrong with it.”

I glanced over the pages again. “And if there is no letter D?” I asked.

“Then there was nothing wrong,” Mama answered. The hands left her face and settled again into her lap.

“Meaning?” I asked, but somewhere inside of me I began to understand.

“The baby wasn’t welcomed. Whether it was deformed or not.” Her hands tightened into fists, fanned out, and were still again.

I stood up, shaking, the book falling to the floor. “How?”

“Pillow, normally.” Mama pushed some hair out of her eyes. I couldn’t seem to stop staring at her hands. “You won’t have to do it for a long time,” she told me. “I promise.”

“I ain’t ever gonna do it,” I said. My clothes were damp with sweat–I could smell that childbearing scent dripping through my skin, perfuming the air around me with the iron-hot smell of blood and spices that have been baked inside a woman’s belly.

“It’s called midwife’s mercy,” Mama started to say.

But I was having none of it. “You can’t make me,” I told her, saying words I never would have dreamed I’d say to my own mama. She was suddenly a stranger to me now, this woman who could hold down a pillow on a baby. I thought of the goose-down filling the cracks around the baby’s nose and mouth, the image of the baby’s face pressed into the pillow, pressed by my mother’s hands.

I went out the back door and purged my belly as hard as I could, trying to make myself clean.

When I was done, I looked around me, seeing a place I’d always known, but was now foreign. The darkness seemed so dense and heavy that I could hardly make out the rim of Denniker’s Mountain looming behind the house. I could hear the churning water of Kettle Creek, reminding me that the woman inside was my mother, who carried me in her womb. I covered my ears with my hands and slumped against the steps, waiting until the wind changed and a warm summer rain began to fall.

The house behind me was quiet, as still and dark as the mountain before me. Only then could I go back inside.

When I woke that morning, Mama was gone, leaving only a note saying that she was at Mary Switzer’s. The room felt strange, and I thought at first it was her absence. Then I realized that all of the birthing ledgers were gone.

I rummaged through the kitchen cupboards and even picked up the rugs. I checked the fireplace, but there was no ash in the grate. There soon would be, I thought, and headed for Mama’s room.

The dark-blue-and-white quilt on the bed was pulled so tight that the cotton fabric looked stretched across a quilting frame. The long pine shelf above was crowded with books, but no ledgers, and no red books of any kind. Behind the corner curtain where she kept her clothes, I found her dresses and underthings, hung on hooks or folded neatly. Her extra pair of shoes stood together on the floor.

Above my head, tied to nails driven into the beams of the ceiling, hung bunches of herbs, and the air was spiced with their scent. Horseweed for cramping. Spreading dogbane, the pods hanging from the stems, good for helping a swollen woman pass water. Some I knew, some I did not. Mama’s mortar and pestle sat clean and shiny on a small table, next to an oil lamp.

Then I saw the only place those ledgers could be–the cedar chest, buried, no doubt, among the winter wool quilts. The chest was locked, but the key was sitting right on top. I turned it, lifting the chest just enough to breathe in wood-scent so rich it turned my stomach.

I slammed the chest closed. Wouldn’t do any good to burn the books, for I knew I would always remember the names written in them. I would always know that some had come down their mother’s tube where my mama’s hands were waiting.

I had to leave my mama’s house. I was too young then to think of ways to make peace with such terrible knowledge except by running from it. I went into my room, into my own cedar chest, and started packing. I packed my winter things, not knowing when, if ever, I would return. I made my bed, sliding my hands across the yellow-and-green bow-tie quilt Great-granny Denniker had made for me when I was born, and wondered when I would sleep beneath it again.

I realized how few places I had to go. I had family, with whom I’d never been close. I had some school friends. I could go to Pittsburgh or Baltimore or Wheeling as so many others my age had done. But to leave meant more than leaving Kettle Creek, or even Mama. I’d heard talk that Alvin Denniker was home, living on the mountain that bore his family’s name. Though folks said otherwise in the year he’d been away, I’d always known that he would come back. And though I’d not laid eyes on him yet, just having him so close was enough to hold me fast.

In the end, I went to Granny’s. For most of my life, Mama had been the one catching babies while Granny studied herbs. Herbals were a healing gift, I thought.

Besides, Mama and Granny had never gotten along. By going to stay with Granny, Mama would not only know how upset I was, but she might also feel a little bit of pain, too.

This last thought shames me most.


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Reading Group Guide

“I come from a long line of midwives,” narrates Elizabeth Whitely. “I was expected to follow Mama, follow Granny, follow Great-granny. In the end, I didn't disappoint them.

Or perhaps I did. After all, there were no more midwives after me.”For generations, the women in Elizabeth's family have brought life to Kettle Valley, West Virginia, heeding a destiny to tend its women with herbals, experience, and wisdom. But Elizabeth, who has comforted so many, has lost her heart to the one man who cannot reciprocate, even when she moves into his home to share his bed and raise his child.

Then Lauren Denniker, Elizabeth's adopted daughter, begins to display a miraculous gift--just as Elizabeth learns that she herself is unable to have a child. How Elizabeth comes to free herself from a loveless relationship, grapple with Lauren's astonishing abilities, and come to terms with her own emptiness is the compelling heart of this remarkable tale. Incorporating the spirited mountain mythology of prewar Appalachia, Gretchen Laskas has crafted a story as true to our time as its own, and a cast of characters as poignant as they are entirely original.


From the Hardcover edition.

1. When Elizabeth first learns from her mother about the little red book, did she respond appropriately? How might we respond differently, many decades later? How would we respond in ways similar to Elizabeth's mother and grandmother—that this was simply part of what it meant to be a midwife?

2. Elizabeth often seems to be caught in the middle of the people she loves—between her mother and grandmother, between Alvin and Ivy, and later Alvin and Lauren. How does this role of “in between” develop her as a character? Did she seem to have more choices or less, by seeing both sides?

3. Elizabeth comes from a long line of midwives. What role did the multigenerational aspect of the novel play? Was the knowledge and understanding of history a beneficial aspect of Elizabeth's life, or something that caused her more burdens?

4. The friendship between Elizabeth and Ivy would seem a very strange one. Did you feel that it was genuine on both sides? Given her mother's disapproval at the beginning, do you think this friendship was something she shared with her mother, or something she kept to herself?

5. Although Elizabeth has many chances to leave Kettle Valley in the novel, she never travels more than a short distance from her home. How does this affect her life and the choices that she makes? What emotions do you think kept her from making the decision to leave?

6. Many family secrets are told in this novel. What is the significance of these stories? Did you see them as gossip or oral history? Is there a difference between the two? Why do you think Elizabeth is telling us her own story?

7. When Elizabeth learns that she is unable to have children, she is naturally devastated. How else did it change the way she saw herself and her relationship to those around her? Was it important that this knowledge came in the middle of the book?

8. What, if anything, do the men in Elizabeth's life have in common with each other? What was it that attracted her to them, and why did each relationship seem to end so sadly? Do you think that Elizabeth would have learned to love David Newland without Lauren?

9. Different forms of healing play a large role in this novel. Given that more women than ever are having babies with midwives or seeking alternative forms of healing, what do you think that medicine today has learned from the past? Did you find the notion of miracles a viable form of healing? What impact does one's spirituality have on one's health?

10. This novel does not have an epigraph at the beginning—a bit of poetic verse or a quotation from a book or speech. If you could give the book an epigraph, which one would you choose and why?

11. What kind of life do you imagine Elizabeth having after the book has ended? Do you believe she continues to practice some midwifery? What sort of mother is she likely to be to her children?

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2003

    Evocative and wonderfully written

    Laskas has created a miracle here--a living, breathing world of rural Appalachia and midwives, of love and loss and the strength it takes to hang onto what you value in your life. I sat up until two in the morning reading, unable to tear myself away. What can I say? I absolutely loved this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 11, 2003

    A BOOK TO CHERISH

    This is a book to stay up all night and read, and then read it again the next day. It is one to sit on your shelf in a place of honor, one that you will recommend to all of your friends but not want to lend because you wont want to give it up. There is something so engrossing, so lovely, and so smart about THE MIDWIFE'S TALE, it was written it seems as a love letter to people who love to read. And that is maybe the highest compliment there is.

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