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The Birth House: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 22, 2006

4.3 out of 5 stars 529 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Canadian radiojournalist McKay was unable to ferret out the life story of late midwife Rebecca Steele, who operated a Nova Scotia birthing center out of McKay's Bay of Fundy house in the early 20th century; the result of her unsatisfied curiousity is this debut novel. McKay writes in the voice of shipbuilder's daughter, Dora Rare, "the only daughter in five generations of Rares," who as a girl befriends the elderly and estranged Marie Babineau, long the local midwife (or traiteur), who claims to have marked Dora out from birth as her successor. After initial reluctance and increasingly intensive training, 17-year-old Dora moves in with Marie; on the eve of Dora's marriage to Archer Bigelow, Marie disappears, leaving Dora her practice. A difficult marriage, many difficult births, a patient's baby thrust on her to raise without warning and other crises (including WWI and the introduction of "clinical" birthing methods) ensue. Period advertisments, journal entries and letters to and from various characters give Dora's voice context. The book is more about the texture of Dora's life than plot, and McKay handles the proceedings with winning, unsentimental care. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

When Dr. Gilbert Thomas, self-proclaimed expert in hygienic, pain-free childbirth, opens a practice in a Nova Scotia coastal village during the World War I years, it sets the stage for a classic conflict between long-held traditions and modern medicine. Seventeen-year-old Dora Rare, the only Rare daughter within five generations, improves her lot in life by becoming the apprentice of Marie Babineau, the independent but caring Acadian midwife who helped bring several generations of Scots Bay residents into the world. The women of the village (not to mention their husbands) grow bitterly divided when Dr. Thomas calls the health and safety of expectant mothers into question. His vengeful actions toward Dora herself--a young woman looking for guidance with her own love life--turn particularly personal as well. McKay has fashioned what she terms a "literary scrapbook," reproducing and re-creating historical news clippings, advertisements, and letters within the text. This sensitively written novel of women's birthing rituals, strengths, and friendships will appeal to readers who enjoy gentle humor and plenty of homespun wisdom. Sarah Johnson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow; First Edition edition (August 22, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061135852
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061135859
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (529 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #433,975 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I received this book for Christmas, 2006, and like most books I receive, I had never heard of this novel. Not without some trepidation, I began to read the first few pages of this lovely novel, becoming more and more spellbound with the story being woven by Ami McKay and her tales of Scots Bay and, later Spider Hill. It is a rarity to feel so entranced by one woman's struggle to find her own in the world before, during and after World War I, and I have never longed for the well being of a character as much as I did Dora Rare. When picturing her, I couldn't help but see her as child, still unsure about the world, or even whether to question the life she leads, but in contrast, a woman with so much intimate knowledge about health, that I couldn't help but relate to her. She is a wholesome character, who made me want the best for her, and her own struggles and strengths, tugged greatly at my heart strings, and in the end I felt inspired at her courage. This novel truly is a piece of art, and I encourage any woman, or man for that matter, to read this book and hopefully they will take as much from this remarkable character and author as I have.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a book for and about mothers. I found the story magical, and although I am of a scientific bent, I love to find myself on the side of the mystical and mysterious. The prologue is positively musical in its choice of language, and I was hooked immediately. Like another of the reviewers, I was unable to put the book down.

The characters in The Birth House are real people, people we care about throughout the story. These are the women we wish we had as neighbours, women we wish we were.

If I have one criticism, it would be seeing our heroine, Dora, in so many historical events. I was OK with seeing her help out at the Halifax explosion, but my credibility was stretched a bit when the small town midwife also helped in Boston during the Influenza epidemic in 1918.

All in all, an excellent read. I would recommend it to all mothers and mothers-to-be. (Wonderful to see yet another amazing Canadian woman author!)
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Format: Hardcover
Congratulations, Ami, on a fabulous first novel.

A young girl, Dora Rare, moves in with an elderly small town midwife or 'traiteur' who claims that Dora will take over her birthing business. Marie Babineau trains the young girl in the ways that only tradition can teach.

The story takes place over a number of years, seeing the main character married, operating a birthing house and raising someone else's child. Dora is caught between the old ways and new, modern birthing practices. The story evolves slowly, deeply and emotionally.

As a fellow Canadian author, it is uplifting to see Canadian fiction so well accepted. I too write about Canadian locales, but haven't yet made it to the east coast in my books yet. Having lived in New Brunswick and traveled to Nova Scotia, I think McKay has painted a quaint and realistic picture of how life was (and maybe still is to some extent), with characters that live and breathe. Canadian fiction is alive and well, thanks to authors like Ami McKay!

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to delve into the emotions and lives of small town Nova Scotia. But warning...bring Kleenex!

~ Cheryl Kaye Tardif
Author of Divine Intervention
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Format: Hardcover
At times I was drawn in by this book, and the main character. She's a young girl in Scotts Bay Canada, and lives at a time of change. She's going to be the next midwife and has learned her trade from the beloved and maligned "Miss B."

I wondered though, at the accuracy of this book at times, and I do love to read historical fiction. I didn't pay much attentiont to the midwifery practices mentioned in the book, but I did wonder about the notion of doctors coming into the area trying to service pregnant women, and the role and perception of modern medicine.

This book really won't answer these questions as I feel it is more fiction than history.

My biggest problem with the book was the one dimentional characters. You have the wise "Miss B." who is the midwife, and she has more nuggets of wisdom than you can count.

Then you have the evil, money grubbing, all science doctor, who presents the conflict for the novel, and is never really shown as more than a quack.

Finally, you have the heroine, a misunderstood and trapped teen, who marries badly, is outspoken, and has some good and not so good connections with the community. She's a little more advanced in her femnisit thinking than I think most woman were, who lived on a mountain and is of age at about 1915.

As the writer's first novel, I think this is a good effort.

For a good afternoon read, you might love it. The best part, I thought, was the camaradarie of women.

If you want more history about either midwives or this time period, I think you will find this book lacking.
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Format: Paperback
The Birth House follows the life of Dora Rare, who lives in a small and slightly isolated village off the coast of Nova Scotia, around the time of World War I. Dora, a young adolescent, is the first girl to be born in many generations of the Rare family genealogy. This alone gives the town enough rumors to spread about her and her family. But when family circumstances force her to choose between staying with her "proper" aunt Fran or the local midwife Miss Babineau for the winter, she chooses to stay with the midwife. Rumors and stories abound. Many of the local townspeople view Miss Babineau, and now Dora, as witches or something of the like, and most keep their distance from the both of them; that is until a child is sick, a woman has gynecological concerns, or a baby is being born into the world. In all of those instances the townspeople come running to Miss Babineau for help, and soon to Dora as well.

The Art of Midwifery
The Birth House gives an enchanting example of how the practices of traditional midwifery were passed on from generation to generation. Being a midwife, which means "with woman", was not and is not just about catching babies. In this story, traditional midwifery takes on a role for women that meets their needs and far exceeds the medical model of care. Miss Babineau does much more for the community than attend labors. Her wisdom abounds in many areas such as mixing up syrups and herbs for the sick that bring down fevers and soothe sore throats and coughs.

Politics and Society
Through this story we also see a political attack against midwifery and a societal misunderstanding of this traditional art. Gilbert Thomas, a medical doctor from a nearby town, continually threatens Dora and Miss Babineau with prosecution.
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