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The Birth House: A Novel

The Birth House: A Novel

4.3 199
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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Lovers of historical fiction are in for a treat with McKay's absorbing debut novel, set in an early-20th-century Nova Scotia village, and spun around the theme of time-tested, homespun wisdom verses more sterile scientific progress.

Dora Rare is a midwife's apprentice. Working closely under the tutelage of the Cajun-born Marie Babineau, Dora learns both how to deliver babies and how to concoct the herbal remedies for various womanly afflictions. Miss Babineau's expertise is unquestioned, and her place in the community seems assured. But when a medical doctor arrives from a nearby town, decrying midwifery and urging women to give birth in his newly constructed maternity ward -- complete with chloroform and sterilized forceps -- Miss Babineau's future and reputation are challenged. And when Dora is forced to flee to Boston, she's exposed to a whole new range of choices for women, but must count on the loyalty of her friends back home to pave the way for her return.

Rich with historical references, beliefs, and fears, McKay's characters wrestle with superstitions and prejudices as they strive for autonomy over their bodies -- despite the objections of their often domineering or abusive husbands. A woman's right to control her own body is a theme that still resonates today, and McKay explores it with insight, sensitivity and tremendous passion. (Holiday 2006 Selection)
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.
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

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.

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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.

Meet the Author

Ami McKay is the author of the number–one Canadian bestseller The Birth House, winner of three Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Awards, and a nominee for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and The Virgin Cure. Originally from Indiana, she now lives with her husband and two sons in Nova Scotia.

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The Birth House 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 199 reviews.
Morganmom40 More than 1 year ago
I am an avid reader and have never felt the need to write a review, until now. This book draws you in and you can not put it down. I am a OB nurse and did find myself facinated by the various topics in the book. Some I agreed with and some I disagreed with but was always able to feel the struggle in the Dora when she had to make the decision that was right for her patients. A Must Read for any woman. We have come a long way since 1917!
BluenoseYankee More than 1 year ago
Ami McKay does an outstanding job of describing the place and characters who inhabit Scots Bay, Nova Scotia during the turn of the century. Her vivid descriptions of available medical care for pregnant women at that time will make your hair stand on end. This book reads more like a biography than a work of fiction, but the conflicts of fighting for women's rights are as true today as they were then. This is so much more than a simple book about a midwife in rurual Nova Scotia. Her character descriptions and locale description take me to Scots Bay, and although this is a work of fiction, everything in this book could have happened. I know because I grew up in Scots Bay and I have heard the stories of the birth house for years. This is a truly wonderful book to read, or give as a gift. I have personally given away many copies to women friends and relatives, including two nurses who have in turn given other friends copies of this book. Any woman, especially any mother, will love this book.
Rupert_My_Love More than 1 year ago
I have been exceptionally lucky, lately, for having found novels that are compelling, complex works of true literature that transcend most of the shoddy and superficial fiction that I find today in bookstores. The Birth House proved to be everything a novel should be, with its firm standing in historical accuracy and its humanistic characters with such depth that readers can actually feel. This novel was a truly unique read that I am so happy to have found.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put it down! Ami's vocabulary was a little difficult for me to understand at first, but the story sucked me in. I recommend it to any woman. The topic of midwifery interested me and the history of the town and the feelings of a girl becoming a woman kept me feeling connected to the main character.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a fun book to read and it has a good story behind it. The birth house probably existed back in the early 1900's. This story was written about a little town in Nova Scotia and Ami McKay made it so realistic making the reader feel like you were living the story. The magical remedies that Miss B and Dora used for healing, birthing, etc., made it a fun and interesting book.
TCarron More than 1 year ago
I love this book. It is a sad look back at how women had to live their lives in a rural community without access to any real medical care. It also shows how much progress we have made in no longer just being our husbands property. Dora Rare is a strong, independent woman in a rural area so of course she had to be a witch like her strong, independent mentor. How could a woman want to live alone without a husband?! I didn't want to put the book down. Some parts just make you want to reach out to the people involved and help them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting. Could not put down. Loved it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book. So interesting and suspenseful and tragic and romantic. It had a peppering of everything that makes a great book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this short story ( 320 pgs), brought a positive light to mid-wives and the strength of a woman. Nicely written from the perspective of a young mid-wife, her story tells the struggle of womans rights and the strength to empower your beliefs when against the odds.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book sings like the old folk group Barachois that came out of the same area. Dora is as rare as a Rare woman is, the first girl in 5 generations. Because she is who she is, the midwife takes her under her wing, teaching the old ways. In the early 20th century the world is changing, but sometimes the changes bring death and destruction with war and the industrial revolution pushing women and their knowledge farther back. But women like Dora push back as they find and share their lives and support each other. This book is reminiscent of Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic. I'll sing it's praises as loud as I can.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just finished reading this one fir the second time. It always brings many emotions to me about women and the things they survive for the love of thier children. Also, as a labor and delivery nurse it is refreshing to read how midwivery was practiced and the art of some of it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a good read, a little slow at times but Im glad I read it. The story is interesting and gives you a look at life for women during that time period.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is not just about births. The characters are very involved, and it is an interesing read!!
harstan More than 1 year ago
In Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, Dora Rare lived up to her surname having been the first female offspring in five generations. Because she was so rare, the midwife Marie ¿Miss B¿ Babineau mentors her in the art of herbal healing including ending a pregnancy. In 1917 when Dora was eighteen, her father and five uncles, all shipbuilders, construct her home overlooking the Bay of Fundy, which soon becomes the local birth house. Not long afterward, Dr. Gilbert Thomas arrives in the village setting up a practice in which he claims painless births at his clinic. He begins a clever campaign to undermine the competition by insisting he provides the most modern scientific techniques while the midwives offer superstition, questionable methods, and pain though he ignores the comparative costs as his charges leave most locals financially strapped. As the women debate tradition vs. scientific progress, Miss B dies making it even easier for Dr. Thomas to claim superiority as his rival is young with limited experience. --- This is a terrific historical tale that looks closely at the debate of ¿progress¿ vs. tradition with the changeover during an age when doctors begin replacing midwives as health providers. The characters are purposely stereotyped to emphasize their perspectives on the debate however, whereas Miss B and Dora seem kind and caring towards their patients, Thomas appears arrogant with more concern over his needs though he is competent. Ami McKay has provided an interesting WW I Canadian tale that is apropos to much of the argument over medical scientific research (and other social issues) making headlines today. --- Harriet Klausner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyed this book. Highly recommend if you enjoy historical fiction.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was really pulled into this story in the beginning, but lost interest in about the fourth chapter. I felt like the story went all over the place after that.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Quick, easy read. Hated to see it come to an end. Characters are easy to follow and love all the different personalities. Highly reccomend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Engaging read! So interesting! I recommend this book whole-heartedly!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldnt put it down ! Loved it and highly reccomend. You really fall in love with the plot and chatacters. This is well written and full of imagry !
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is late and I am too numb to write a very articulate review but I must give the author her due- best $1.99 I ever spent - a protagonist with whom I wish I was best friends; an antagonist I loved to hate; a braided plot; a satisfactory resolution - an extraordinary read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A wonderful story, The author's writing style is rich and intoxicating. I could not put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A good story. I love most stories about the Maritimes and Newfoundland. Makes you think about midwives being taken over by doctors and clinics.
shanbritts More than 1 year ago
Awesome Bood! a Great read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I don't know how she remained so strong! I would definitely recommend this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was great. Very detailed descriptions made me feel like i was really there. It isnt just about babies it has much more depth. Will recommend this book to my mom.