Midwives

Midwives

4.0 166
by Chris Bohjalian
     
 

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"Superbly crafted and astonishingly powerful. . . . It will thrill readers who cherish their worn copies of To Kill A Mockingbird." —People

With a suspense, lyricism, and moral complexity that recall To Kill a Mockingbird and Presumed Innocent, this compulsively readable novel explores what happens when a woman who has devoted

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Overview

"Superbly crafted and astonishingly powerful. . . . It will thrill readers who cherish their worn copies of To Kill A Mockingbird." —People

With a suspense, lyricism, and moral complexity that recall To Kill a Mockingbird and Presumed Innocent, this compulsively readable novel explores what happens when a woman who has devoted herself to ushering life into the world finds herself charged with responsibility in a patient's tragic death.

The time is 1981, and Sibyl Danforth has been a dedicated midwife in the rural community of Reddington, Vermont, for fifteen years. But one treacherous winter night, in a house isolated by icy roads and failed telephone lines, Sibyl takes desperate measures to save a baby's life. She performs an emergency Caesarean section on its mother, who appears to have died in labor. But what if—as Sibyl's assistant later charges—the patient wasn't already dead, and it was Sibyl who inadvertently killed her?

As recounted by Sibyl's precocious fourteen-year-old daughter, Connie, the ensuing trial bears the earmarks of a witch hunt except for the fact that all its participants are acting from the highest motives—and the defendant increasingly appears to be guilty. As Sibyl Danforth faces the antagonism of the law, the hostility of traditional doctors, and the accusations of her own conscience, Midwives engages, moves, and transfixes us as only the very best novels ever do.

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post Book World
An 'astonishing' suspense bestseller about a woman on trial for murder that will keep readers up late at night until the last page is turned.
Washington Washington Post Book World
An 'astonishing' suspense bestseller about a woman on trial for murder that 'will keep readers up late at night until the last page is turned.
People
Superbly crafted...powerful. It will thrill readers who cherish their worn copies of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Boston Globe
The courtroom settings provide...ample suspense....A writer of unusual heart.
People Magazine
Superbly crafted...powerful. It will thrill readers who cherish their worn copies of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Among the many achievements of this gripping, insightful novel is the remarkable fullness with which Bohjalian (Water Witches) writes about both the physicality and the spirituality of childbirth.

OB/GYN physician Connie Danforth looks back on the events of a wrenching summer when she was 14 and her mother, Sibyl, a Vermont midwife and ex-hippie with a "distaste for most traditional and institutional authority," was on trial for murder. Sybil has successfully home-delivered more than 500 babies, but one freezing March night, the phone line down and the roads impassable, the laboring woman she is attending suddenly suffers what appears to be a fatal stroke. Sibyl saves the child with an emergency C-section only to find herself arrested after her assistant tells police that the operation was performed on a still-living woman. Is there, in fact, blood on Sibyl's hands? Or is she just a target of the hostile New England medical community, whose persecution of midwives dates back to the 17th-century expulsion of Anne Hutchinson from the Massachusetts Bay? As Connie wrestles with increasing doubts about whether or not her mother acted correctly, the Danforth family struggles to remain intact in the face of community ostracism and unrelenting media scrutiny.

Readers will find themselves mesmerized by the irresistible momentum of the narrative and by Bohjalian's graceful and lucid, irony-laced prose. His warm, vivid evocations of child-bearing capture the wonder and terror of bringing a baby into the world. With acutely sensitive character delineation, he manages to present all the participants in this drama, from the family members to the grieving widower, as complex, fully realized individuals. This is a story with no obvious villains or heroes, which only renders the tragedy all the more haunting.

Library Journal
In this new tale from the author of the acclaimed Water Witches, a New England midwife is accused of murder.
Mademoiselle
A thoughtful combination of ethical angst and courtroom drama.
Chris Bohjalian
[His books are about] everyday people dealing with the complex moral ambiguities that fill this world....What is most important to me is that my narrator's voice is believable and that, though it is clearly an absolute fiction, it has the emotional resonance of memoir. -- Interviewed in Publishers Weekly, January 4, 1999
Washington Wash. Post Book World
An 'astonishing' suspense bestseller about a woman on trial for murder that 'will keep readers up late at night until the last page is turned.
Kirkus Reviews
Bohjalian (Water Witches, 1995, etc.) blends some provocative moral, medical, and political issues into a classic coming-of-age story in this To Kill a Mockingbird like reminiscence of the murder trial of a midwife, as witnessed by her teenaged daughter.

From the day back in the '60s when Sibyl Danforth stepped forward in an emergency to help a pregnant friend give birth, she fell in love with the birthing process and dedicated herself to a calling as a lay midwife in rural Vermont. But as her obstetrician daughter, Connie, points out, Sibyl never bothered to obtain certification from the American College of Nurse-Midwives. Still, neighbors who wanted to have their babies at home felt comfortable calling on her. Among Sibyl's patients in 1981, the year Connie turned 14, was a minister's wife named Charlotte Bedford, a fragile woman whose incredibly difficult labor led to a stroke and what appeared to be Charlotte's death. Prevented by a heavy snowstorm from getting Charlotte to a hospital, Sibyl frantically tried to save the baby's life by performing an emergency cesarean on the presumably dead woman. Only after Charlotte is carted away does the question arise: Was the woman actually dead when Sibyl cut her open? In a strong, ruminative voice, Connie re-creates that terrible year when the state's attorney, Charlotte Bedford's family, the local medical community, and even members of the Danforths' small hometown seemed to conspire to put not just Sibyl but the entire practice of home birthing on trial. Connie, fearing witch-huntstyle reprisals, eventually broke the law to protect her beloved mother's freedom. But the question remains: Did Sibyl kill Charlotte for the sake of her baby?

Rich in moral ambiguity, informative to a fault on the methods and politics of childbirth, and perceptive regarding the whipsawing desires and loyalties of a perfectly normal teenaged girl: a compelling, complex novel and the strongest yet from the talented Bohjalian.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780375706776
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
11/28/1998
Series:
Oprah's Book Club Series
Pages:
384
Sales rank:
112,627
Product dimensions:
7.98(w) x 5.12(h) x 0.84(d)

Read an Excerpt

Throughout the long summer before my mother's trial began, and then during those crisp days in the fall when her life was paraded publicly before the county—her character lynched, her wisdom impugned—I overheard much more than my parents realized, and I understood more than they would have liked.

Through the register in the floor of my bedroom I could listen to the discussions my parents would have with my mother's attorney in the den late at night, after the adults had assumed I'd been sleeping for hours. If the three of them happened to be in the suite off the kitchen my mother used as her office and examining room, perhaps searching for an old document in her records or a patient's prenatal history, I would lie on the bathroom floor above them and listen as their words traveled up to me through the holes that had been cut for the water pipes to the sink. And while I never went so far as to lift the receiver of an upstairs telephone when I heard my mother speaking on the kitchen extension, often I stepped silently down the stairs until I could hear every word that she said. I must have listened to dozens of phone conversations this way—standing completely still on the bottom step, invisible from the kitchen because the phone cord stretched barely six feet—and by the time the trial began, I believe I could have reconstructed almost exactly what the lawyer, friend, or midwife was saying at the other end of the line.

I was always an avid parent watcher, but in those months surrounding the trial I became especially fanatic. I monitored their fights, and noted how the arguments grew nasty fast under pressure; I listened to them apologize, one of them often sobbing, and then I'd wait for the more muffled (but still decipherable) sounds they would make when they would climb into bed and make love. I caught the gist of their debates with doctors and lawyers, I understood why some witnesses would be more damning than others, I learned to hate people I'd never met and whose faces I'd never seen. The state's medical examiner. The state's attorney. An apparently expert midwife from Washington, D.C.

The morning the judge gave the jury its instructions and sent them away to decide my mother's fate, I overheard her attorney explain to my parents what he said was one of the great myths in litigation: You can tell what a jury has decided the moment they reenter the courtroom after their deliberations, by the way they look at the defendant. Or refuse to look at him. But don't believe it, he told them. It's just a myth.

I was fourteen years old that fall, however, and it sounded like more than a myth to me. It had that ring of truth to it that I heard in many wives'—and midwives'—tales, a core of common sense hardened firm by centuries of observation. Babies come when the moon is full. If the boiled potatoes burn, it'll rain before dark. A bushy caterpillar's a sign of a cold winter. Don't ever sugar till the river runs free.

My mother's attorney may not have believed the myth that he shared with my parents, but I sure did. It made sense to me. I had heard much over the past six months. I'd learned well which myths to take to my heart and which ones to discard.

And so when the jury filed into the courtroom, an apostolic procession of twelve, I studied their eyes. I watched to see whether they would look at my mother or whether they would look away. Sitting beside my father in the first row, sitting directly behind my mother and her attorney as I had every day for two weeks, I began to pray to myself, Please don't look at your shoes, please don't look at the judge. Don't look down or up or out the window. Please, please, look at me, look at my mother. Look at us, look here, look here, look here.

I'd watched the jurors for days, I'd seen them watch me. I'd counted beards, I'd noted wrinkles, I'd stared beyond reason and courtesy at the way the fellow who would become the foreman had sat with his arms folded across his chest, hiding the hand disfigured years earlier by a chain saw. He had a thumb but no fingers.

They walked in from the room adjacent to their twelve chairs and found their seats. Some of the women crossed their legs at their knees, one of the men rubbed his eyes and rocked his chair back for a brief second on its rear legs. Some scanned the far wall of the courtroom, some looked toward the exit sign above the front door as if they realized their ordeal was almost over and emancipation was at hand.

One, the elderly woman with white hair and a closet full of absolutely beautiful red flowered dresses, the woman who I was sure was a Lipponcott from Craftsbury, looked toward the table behind which the state's attorney and his deputy were sitting.

And that's when I broke down. I tried not to, but I could feel my eyes fill with tears, I could feel my shoulders beginning to quiver. I blinked, but a fourteen-year-old girl's eyelids are no match for the lament I had welling inside me. My cries were quiet at first, the sound of a mournful whisper, but they gathered fury fast. I have been told that I howled.

And while I am not proud of whatever hysteria I succumbed to that day in the courtroom, I am not ashamed of it either. If anyone should feel shame for whatever occurred that moment in a small courthouse in northeastern Vermont, in my mind it is the jury: Amidst my sobs and wails, people have said that I pleaded aloud, "Look at us! Oh, God, please, please look at us!" and still not one of the jurors would even glance in my mother's or my direction.

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