Book Review: The Birth House by Ami McKay
Dora Rare is rare indeed. She is the first female born to the Rare family Scots Bay, Canada in generations. Her dark hair and brownish skin reflecting the family’s Micmac heritage make her stick out like a sore thumb in the area. However, Scots Bay’s midwife, Miss B., has always taken a shining to Dorrie, and she trains her in the ways of midwifery. The early 1900s are a tough time for midwives and women, though. Soon the area is threatened by World War I and male obstetricians, not to mention all the obstacles rural women have always had to face from violent, drunk husbands to too many children.
This book was quite honestly painful to read, for it lays out so clearly what it is that makes being a woman difficult in society. Although some things in modern day have improved, for instance we western women have the right to birth control, in other ways things have remained painfully the same. There are still areas of the world where men have more control over women’s bodies than they do. It is often still expected for women to be pure when men are not. Women often feel that they must put up with the wrongdoings of their husband simply to keep the home and family life that they so desperately desire, and on and on.
The book itself is told as a mix of third person narrative and Dora’s journal with clippings from the various newspapers. This style suits the story well, as we are allowed to see Dora from both outside and inside her own head. The characters are fairly well-rounded, although the motivations of those who are not Dora are not always the clearest or the most sympathetic, but as most things are from her perspective, that is understandable.
Of particular interest to me, especially with my knowledge of psychology, was the portions of the book dealing with how women are often accused of being insane simply for reacting to the injustices foisted upon them. I discussed this topic at length in multiple women’s studies and feminism classes. The idea that the just rage of the trodden upon is often depicted by the rulers as insanity. This is beautifully depicted in this book for Dora, struggling against many injustices and feeling rightfully irritated and angry, is informed by a male doctor that she is suffering from hysteria–a peculiarly female ailment resulting from female organs. Her anger and fighting back is thus tagged with a name that let’s others dismiss it as an illness, rather than a just reaction. McKay eloquently depicts this entire issue without being too heavy-handed.
I was also surprised and delighted to see a portion of the story take place in Boston during the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. I’m assuming McKay must have visited my city, for she perfectly describes the North End from the buildings to the atmosphere of walking those streets. This accuracy allowed me to travel back in time to a period of injustices in my own city, not to mention the molasses flood. It was indeed a delight to read of Boston from a women’s rights perspective for once instead of always reading of the Irish mafia.
The main point of the book comes across throughout it in a gentle way. The idea that we must continue to struggle and give but not give up or the oppressors will win.
Never let someone take what’s rightfully yours. You can give all you want in life, but don’t give up. (page 337)
It is simultaneously encouraging, uplifting, and depressing to realize that women throughout time have struggled with similar issues. Yet things are gradually improving, and thus we must not give up for the sake of future generations of women.
This book beautifully depicts the history of women’s rights in the early 1900s. It is a painfully beautiful read that I recommend all women, as well as men sympathetic to the cause, read.
4 out of 5 stars