Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Book 23: Midwives

While I have enjoyed every Bohjalian novel I've read (though if you are new to him, don't start with The Night Strangers), I was in no real hurry to pick this novel up.  I think sometimes I'm hesitant to read older novels by some authors, afraid they won't be nearly as good as their later work (for example, I really didn't like Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), even though some people peak early and can never recapture the magic of earlier novels.  Maybe it was just the fact that the premise of the story didn't interest me as much because I don't plan on having kids or giving birth or anything like that.  Once I picked it up, it was just as good as any other one of his novels.  In fact, I'm kind of surprised he doesn't seem to be a more popular author - his novels have covered a variety of topics, always focus on the characters and their relationships, and some have twists, but since not all of them have twists, I'm not reading the novel expecting a twist, and am instead pleasantly surprised when there is a twist, adding an extra layer of complexity to the narrative I thought I just read.  Given that this particular novel dealt with court room drama, I especially found myself thinking Jodi Picoult fans should totally read him though his novels are better told and written.
Connie Danforth, the daughter of midwife Sybil Danforth (she is a lay-midwife, not a nurse midwife) and Rand, narrates the novel several years after the events that are the focus of the story.  In 1981, Sybil attends a homebirth for Charlotte Bedford, and though she originally expected no complications, the labor takes a long time, the expectant mother is exhausted, and Sybil considers transferring her to  the hospital.  Unfortunately, there is also a terrible winter storm that night in March, and the phones are out and the roads impassable - they are stuck in that bedroom in the isolated house in Vermont.  Eventually, Charlotte dies, and Sybil does an emergency casearean to save the baby.  However, Sybil's new assistant and midwife apprentice Anne doubts what she saw, and starts making phone calls to people, implying that Sybil did not save a baby from its dead mother's body - instead, she cut into a living woman, thus killing her.  The rest of the novel examines the after effects of these two very differing views of the events of that evening.
Sybil Danforth soon finds herself under investigation, and pressed with charges of involuntary manslaughter and practicing medicine without a license.  Of course, the trial is about much more than how Charlotte died.  It's about two competing views of life and childbirth.  While Charlotte's death could have been seen as unfortunate but an accident, it becomes part of a political agenda - the medical institution vs midwives.  I don't know how divisive of an issue this still is, but I think that as early as my high school AP history class, I was already introduced to do the idea of doctors villainizing midwives due to a documentary about a 18th century midwife whose journal had been discovered.  At first, doctors had no interest in birth since such womanly things were beneath them; however, slowly, the medical profession gained more prestige, and doctors realized there was money to be made, even though in many cases they had no idea of some simple home remedies and instead relied on bad science with no bed manner.  As a result, it added a certain amount of background and depth to this simple story about three women - Charlotte, Sybil and her daughter, Connie.  As a result of this prior knowledge of midwives and women's treatment in medicine (based on various women's studies classes), I found the portrayals here particularly interesting, even though the topic of childbirth in general isn't really something I care about on a personal level (I don't plan on having kids, even if I did, I doubt I'd have a homebirth although that has less to do with fears of something going wrong - though my mom was in labor for 28 hours - and more with the fact that I don't understand why people would want to ruin their own sheets and mattresses when they could mess up the ones at the hospital; I realize that is probably juvenile and somewhat shallow reasoning).
Since the story is told from hind sight, the novel reveals different pieces at different times, so that the reader knows about the eventual trial before they know about everything that happened that night.  The whole time I was waiting to see what the trial's outcome would be, and Bohjalian wrapped up the novel in a very satisfying way, giving voice to both sides of the debate, though it would be impossible not to feel for Sybil.

1 comment:

KayKay said...

Nice review. It's been awhile since I read this book, but I remember wanting a home birth after I finished. I could never do it (best to be in the safest environment), but I could sympathize with the benefits.