I was very happy to finally crack the covers of The Birth House by Ami McKay this past week. I’ve known about this novel for a while but bought a copy only after reading about it in more detail in Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books (where it ranked #12), co-written by my good friend Trevor J. Adams.
McKay’s novel deserves all the kudos it has gotten. Packaged as a story about midwifery and traditional medicine coming to heads with modern science, The Birth House has a lot more going on than just that. This is a compelling novel about women living in rural Nova Scotia fighting for control over their own sexuality and their own health, set against both the ardent religiosity and quack science of the early 20th century. But it’s also about the secret lives that women lead and keep hidden from their men – lives full of home remedies, juicy gossip and DIY contraception. The novel’s structure is part diary and part scrapbook (my edition even includes recipes and home remedies at the back; will file a report should I attempt any of them), which suits the atmosphere that McKay has created very well.
What I loved most about The Birth House was how well McKay was able to weave in the history of her novel’s setting into both her plot and her themes. World War I, the Halifax Explosion, the Suffragist movement the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918 aren’t just part of the background: they all play a pivotal role in protagonist Dora Rare’s development as a character and in what the novel is trying to say about the healing nature of community and women’s roles in it.
There were a few aspects of The Birth House that did bug me. It partakes in a trend I’ve seen emerging in a lot of big-ticket Canadian novels recently, what I like to call the Completely Gratuitous Trip to the Eastern United States (see Clara Callan; see the later novels of Wayne Johnston). I’m not sure I entirely bought Dora’s extended stay in Boston as a natural part of this novel’s story. Also, I did wish McKay had given a bit more dimension to most of the male characters in the book. They are almost always cold, cruel and close minded – mere foils to be thwarted by the cleverness of a woman. It gives the book a lopsided, biased feel.
But despite these flaws, I found myself nearly cheering by the time I reached the last page. McKay has assembled a wonderful historical novel full of joy and humanity. The Birth House has earned its place among the great books of both Atlantic Canada and the country at large.