Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Birth House

by Ami McKay

I enjoyed this book. When I put it down, I looked forward to picking it up again. McKay is good at evoking the hard beauty of life in rural Nova Scotia at the beginning of the twentieth century. She has a large cast of characters and we feel we could visit this community and recognize everybody: the hard-working, decent, sometimes ignorant men and women whom life has taught to be no-nonsense, the women’s cliques with their prejudices and pretensions which go back generations, and the girls from away with their fresh ideas, who don’t recognize the authority of the old families. Some of the characters are memorable: the original and colourful Acadian, Marie Babineau, takes over all the scenes she is in. And there is the stalwart and conflicted Hart and his weak, spoiled and selfish brother, Archer. I enjoyed following Dora Rare’s growth from a lonely teenager to a leader in her community, gathering friends and confidence as she matured.
The pace is good, and the narrative moves along in a well-balanced and brisk fashion.
The prose is lyrical with vivid images and the dialogue flows naturally.
This is a feel-good book for women. It embraces all the issues that interest modern Canadian women: midwifery and home birth, control over one’s own body, suspicion of experts who have lost touch with human issues, herbal cures and natural foods, alternative green energy, and finding one’s calling and fulfilling one’s ‘passion.’ There is even the requisite lesbian couple who teach the protagonist that sex can be full of joy and love.
I can’t say the author is manipulative or insincere. She is genuine, believes in all these things herself and has written a book that reflects her own choices and appeals to like-minded women. Dora, the protagonist, faces problems with which we identify and makes conclusions that we applaud. Of the sex workers, she wonders whether they are not the same as women like herself who gave up power over her own body for the security of a home. She is open to new ideas. As a girl she is a romantic, conflicted and ignorant about her emerging sensuality. We see her ignorance and vulnerability taken advantage of when she enters a marriage to a callous man who has no respect for her. We hurt for her as she accepts her situation and doesn’t know that it could be better. She confronts social problems that interest us: girlhood bullying, an abusive husband, and the search for security. We readers relate to her problems. We are happy to see little Dora develop into a strong woman who follows her own career and maintains an equal-partner relationship with a man who makes no demands on her. These are our modern ideals.
But is the book well written?
This is a first novel and I think it strains under research insufficiently kneaded into the two essentials: plot and character. We read about the Acadian Dispersion, the Halifax Explosion, World War I, white feathers, suffragettes, the Temperance Union, the Influenza Epidemic, the Boston molasses explosion, the end of the shipbuilding era in Nova Scotia, and the coming of electricity. We have a history lesson in the pages of a novel. Does this enhance the story? Are the events germane to the plot? Do they drive it? Do they develop the characters? Mostly the answer is no. They seem imposed on the plot in an effort to create an authentic setting. Most of these events could be excised without changing the plot.
Archer, for instance, is given the white feather, but this seems to have no effect on him or Dora. It was presented out of jealousy, not patriotism. We know that in fact, men who received the white feather were humiliated and even driven to suicide, and we expect this event to be a plot driver in the novel, but it fizzles out. I felt that McKay just wanted to tell me that she knew about the use of white feathers during the war. Well, I know about them too, and, like a gun introduced into a first act, I’d like to see it used by the conclusion.
Just by chance, the first time Dora ventures out of her immediate vicinity, the Explosion happens, and she goes to Halifax to help out. Does this help the plot or develop her character? She goes back to Scots Bay and worries about her marriage and her barrenness. The whole episode could be excised and the story would be no different.
The magazine literature advertising sexual advice and aids for women was interesting and well-researched. The gadgets sold, women bought them. But would Dora have bought them? A character has been developed who is opposed to the new ways brought to the village by Dr. Thomas, the villain of the story. She knows that the printed page carries misinformation; she has seen lies written about herself in the Canning Register, and she has seen her husband taken in by printed advertisements for windmills. Would Dora really have believed the advertisements and ordered sex aids from a magazine?
It seems to me that Dora is a strong character wanting to emerge from this story, but McKay is so eager to include references that ground her book in an authentic time and place, that she neglects the authenticity of her character. She wants to impose her thinking on this girl from another era. She holds Dora on too tight a leash. Dora’s function as a proponent of midwifery is more important to McKay than allowing her character to grow into who she wants to be. Next time, Ami, relax the reins.
McKay says that she wanted her style of writing to resemble the emptying of her mother’s pockets at the end of the day, and include all the disparate items that represented her life. The introduction of letters, newspaper clippings, invitations, and so on into the text is part of this attempt. Including letters in a narrative is an old device. It varies the rhythm, and focuses attention on what is often a turning point in a plot. These intrusions have more effect when done less liberally, in my opinion. In The Birth House there are so many of them that they appear as shortcuts to proper development of the drama and response to events. It’s an original attempt, but I think it is overworked.
What is the theme of this book? I think it is to teach us to value traditional healing and the wisdom of experience and promote midwifery. Unfortunately, the figure who represents modern medicine, Dr. Thomas, is so entirely malign, that a real debate can never emerge from this book. There cannot be a satisfactory resolution when the two sides are unequal. We know that doctors and midwives can work together and doctors have learned a lot from midwives. But this book ends with the banishment of the doctor. Midwives Rule!
This is a book from the 60s , from the back-to-the earth people who formed the first co-ops and discovered wheat berries and bulgur and introduced America to yogurt. I am a first cohort baby boomer. I remember this stuff. But I have learned that there are many sides to an issue and I appreciate a fair debate. I have moved on.