The Birth House by Ami McKay

One of the first books I read this year and easily the best novel I encountered in 2006, this account of a midwife in turn-of-the-(20th)-century Nova Scotia is everything a novel should be: funny and tragic, joyful and sorrowful, filled with rich, carefully drawn characters and experiences that linger long in the mind.

The Birth House
spent most of the year on bestseller lists and marked the arrival of a splendid new talent. I can’t wait to see what Ami McKay does next.
– Robert Wiersema, for the Vancouver Sun.

Ami McKay’s book The Birth House is a natural selection for book clubs. Set in rural Nova Scotia circa the First World War, it tells the story of Dora Rare, the “only daughter in five generations of Rares.” Dora is a smart girl who spends much of her time with Miss B, the area midwife. Miss B is part-healer and part-witch and Dora learns much under her tutelage.

Truthfully, it took me a while to get settled into Dora’s quiet world, but the book’s charms are undeniable. For one thing, Dora is utterly likeable. She is kind and sensible and although she is young, she is no shrinking violet. McKay does a wonderful job of creating a world far removed from technology and the horrors of the war, but certainly not immune to either. For example, Dora’s faith in midwifery is tested (as is the faith of all the women of her community) when Dr. Thomas arrives in the area and sets up a hospital, offering women pain-free births. And when the Halifax Explosion of 1917 happens, Dora rushes off to help and is forever changed by the experience. Scots Bay isn’t modern and McKay paints a riveting picture of poverty and backwoods thinking.

But the book isn’t without a sense of humour either. Dora’s marriage to town hunk, Archer, necessitates a visit to Dr. Thomas where he diagnoses her with “neurasthenia” and prescribes treatment using the Swedish Movement Health Generator. I dare you to keep a straight face.

The Birth House isn’t a flashy book, but it’s a book that will resonate with readers, particularly women, and I heartily recommend it.

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