Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Midwife of Hope River

There are few things more pleasurable in the reading life than sinking into a historical novel with a keen sense of place and lots of little daily-life details to get lost in. Plus, it's about midwifery, and I'm kind of obsessed with that.

Patience Murphy is a newish midwife in Appalachia in the 1920s and early 1930s. Her life is full of secrets and a complicated past that she hides from her closest friends and guards from the locals out of fear. While she works tirelessly, delivering children for every person at every social class, it's what she has to do to survive. 

This was one of the books recommended to me when I asked specifically for midwifery-related recommendations, and it did not disappoint. Appalachia during this time period was brutal in a number of ways: living conditions; unemployment; horrible working conditions, especially in mines and complicated by unions. Marriage and birth were equally treacherous at times, and this book is most certainly not chock-full of happy deliveries. Some happy deliveries, mind you, but some casualties, too.

The strength of this novel is the depth of character in Patience Murphy, and the colorful past that injects some additional interest and some additional issues into Harman's work. Admittedly, I'm not terribly well schooled on the conditions in mines during this time, and while I saw some familiar names, I'm not very well educated on the role of unions and union-related violence during this period. But it's something I'll be sure to research now!

I enjoyed Patience's relationship with her friend and midwife's assistant, Bitsy. She is an African American woman turned out of the home where she's originally employed, and Patience takes her in. She soon finds that Bitsy is able in every way--a great shot, great gardener, and a great help in her midwife's duties. From another perspective, it's a little disappointing to continue to see African American women as the sidekicks. Where's the book about the African American midwife during this time? They existed! Maybe someone will tell that story next.  But to smooth that over, I do have to say that Bitsy was Patience's equal in every way except through the eyes of the region. Without Bitsy as her friend and confidante, she would've had a lot of doors closed to her, and it would've been a very different book. There was lots of racism running rampant at this time, compounded by the dire state of employment and finances. The Ku Klux Klan (sort of) popped up in a pretty dramatic showdown at one point. 

Even though I've pointed out some issues that gave me pause and made me think (not a bad thing!), I really did enjoy the book SO much. I just can't get enough of historical novels that pick me up and set me down in another time period, in another life. Those will always be my favorites. Patricia Harman has definitely crafted one of those thoughtful, detailed books that carried me away into the pages. 

Snuggle -- Skewer

Pub. Date: August 2012
Publisher: William Morrow
Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 978-0062198891
Source: A gift from the super-awesome Zibilee!


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