The Birth House is set against the historical backdrop of 1919, in the small shipbuilding village of Scot's Bay, Nova Scotia. Narrated by Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born in five generations of Rares, we are introduced to a world that has been brought to life. As a child in an isolated village, she is drawn to Miss Babineau, an outspoken Acadian midwife with a gift for healing. Dora becomes Miss B.’s apprentice, and together they help the women of Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labors, breech births, unwanted pregnancies and even unfulfilling sex lives. Filled with details as compelling as they are surprising, The Birth House is an unforgettable tale of the struggles women have faced to have control of their own bodies and to keep the best parts of tradition alive in the world of modern medicine.
"I don't know that I'll ever have her kind of wisdom, or the courage it takes to live like her - to be given such little respect, to be alone. I'm scared of what it means to take a step, any step, that's not in the direction I dreamed I'd go."
Reading McKay’s first novel is like rummaging through a sea-chest found in a Nova Scotian attic. Steeped in lore and landscape, peppered with journal entries, newspaper clippings and advertisements, this marvelous ‘literary scrapbook’ captures the harsh realities of the seacoast community of Scots Bay, Nova Scotia during WWI. McKay is a marvelous storyteller who writes with a haunting and evocative voice. Written with lyrical sway and grace, with meticulous detail and visceral description, she retrieves our social history and lays it out before us in a collage of vivid, compelling detail. The novel offers a world of mystery and wisdom, a world where tradition collides with science, where life and death meet under the moon. With a startling sense of time and place, The Birth House travels through a landscape that is at once deeply tender and exquisitely harsh, relaying a story of individual human tenderness and endurance.
"My house stands at the edge of the earth. Together, the house and I have held strong against the churning tides of Fundy. Two sisters, stubborn in our bones."
As I have expressed many times over in the past weeks, I take joy in learning new things from books. I love reading a book and coming across a word, event, or person that sparks some interest and finding out more on the subject. The Birth House led me to some interesting reading on the Boston Molasses Flood, an event I had no idea even took place. In January 1919, A tank of 2.5 million gallons of molasses exploded. Weighing over 30 million pounds, the molasses flooded the streets of Boston at 35 miles per hour, causing havoc on the streets, killing 21 and injuring 150. Since then, the event has entered local folklore, with residents claiming that on hot summer days, the area still smells of molasses.
The Birth House is an examination of a community of women, their society, and the families they held together through their shared friendships, rivalries, stories, and knitting circles. McKay has assembled a wonderful historical novel full of joy and humanity, that has earned its place among the great books of both Atlantic Canada and the country at large, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.