Midwives by Chris Bohjalian
“With a suspense, lyricism, and moral complexity that recall To Kill a Mockingbird and Presumed Innocent, this compulsively readable novel explores what happens when a woman who has devoted herself to ushering life into the world finds herself charged with responsibility in a patient’s tragic death.
The time is 1981, and Sibyl Danforth has been a dedicated midwife in the rural community of Reddington, Vermont, for fifteen years. But one treacherous winter night, in a house isolated by icy roads and failed telephone lines, Sibyl takes desperate measures to save a baby’s life. She performs an emergency Caesarean section on its mother, who appears to have died in labor. But what if—as Sibyl’s assistant later charges—the patient wasn’t already dead, and it was Sibyl who inadvertently killed her?
As recounted by Sibyl’s precocious fourteen-year-old daughter, Connie, the ensuing trial bears the earmarks of a witch hunt except for the fact that all its participants are acting from the highest motives—and the defendant increasingly appears to be guilty. As Sibyl Danforth faces the antagonism of the law, the hostility of traditional doctors, and the accusations of her own conscience, Midwives engages, moves, and transfixes us as only the very best novels ever do.”
When coming to mark this book as read, I saw that I had put it on my to-read list back in 2008. I don’t recall when or where I first heard about the book that caused it to be added to my list. After all, my to-read list holds over three thousand books. I do, however, recall seeing it on the shelf at B&N two months ago and picking it up to read the back flap.
The title alone caught my attention due to the fact that my very best friend in the entire world is currently pursuing her dream of becoming a home birth midwife. She has been an apprentice midwife now for just over a year, so my knowledge and interest of all things midwife-y has grown considerably. I figured, if nothing else, I’d read it, see if it was any good and recommend it to her. It turns out she beat me to it. I was telling her about this book that I had seen that I wanted to read and she had already read it, owned it as a matter of fact, and would loan it to me. I didn’t realize that it was an Oprah read until she handed me her copy and I have to admit to being one of those people who rolls their eyes every time they see an Oprah’s Book Club marker on a book cover. But, as much as it annoys me, typically, the books she chooses are very good.
As for the book itself, I thought it very well written. I liked the way it was told through the memories of the midwife’s daughter with small snippets of Sybl’s journals at the beginning of each chapter.
Now, I personally have never attended a home birth, or any birth for that matter. I do know several women who have had home births over the past two years and I am friends with a home birth midwife and her two apprentices. I am familiar with the attitude towards home birth that many in the medical field have and I felt that was realistically portrayed in the book. I am all too aware of the ignorance of the general public when it comes to home birth. I often get a good laugh when I tell someone my friend is a home birth midwife. “You mean people still have babies at home?”
My one major issue with the book was that I did feel that Sybil would never have called her mother’s “patients”, she would have called them clients instead. But overall it appeared to be very well researched.
Some of the reviews I’ve read say that they feel the book is an indictment against home birth but I don’t think that is the case at all. I haven’t asked my friend what she thought of the book yet, I wanted to wait until I was done with it to discuss it with her but I’ll be interested to hear her take on the story. Personally, I gave it 4 stars, I liked it very much.
Published November 8th 1998 by Vintage