Monday, January 31

Book Review: The Birth House

Title: The Birth House

Author: Ami McKay

Pages: 387

Summary: The Birth House is the story of Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born in five generations of Rares. As a child in an isolated village in Nova Scotia, she is drawn to Miss Babinau, an outspoken Acadian midwife with a gift for healing and in a kitchen filled with herbs and folk remedies. During the turbulent first years of World War I, Dora becomes the midwife's apprentice. Together they help the women of the Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labours, and even unfulfilling sex lives.

When Gilbert Thomas, a brash medical doctor, comes to Scots Bay, with promises of fast, painless childbirth, many in the community begin to question Miss Babineau's methods. After Miss Babineau disappears, Dora is left to carry on alone. In the face of fierce strength and fight to protect the birthing traditions and women's wisdom that have been passed down to her.

Filled with details that are as compelling as they are surprising - childbirth in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion, the prescribing of vibratory treatments to cure hysteria and mysterious exlir called the Beaver Brew - The Birth House is an unforgettable tale of the struggles women have to face to maintain control over their own bodies and to keep the best parts of tradition alive in the world of modern medicine.

My Rating: 8.5/10

What I liked/disliked about the book: Although the book wasn’t exactly what I expected it to be, it was a wonderful book, well written and overall an interesting story. I was expecting more of a story on the actual birth house, following the women who came there for help and sanctuary, their stories and how they influenced the midwife - along with the battle between midwives and doctors. Instead I got more of a story on Dora and her life journey up to and starting the birth house. The story was still a great one, but I was expecting something a little different.

The writing was lovely; it easily drew you into the book and flowed well. The author’s ability to tell a story was almost flawless - it may not have been the story I was expecting, but the author did a fantastic job at telling her story. There were times and parts of the story that seemed to side off track from the bigger picture, (although this could be because I thought the story would go somewhere different than it did) but this was done to build the characters who were extremely well done.

I really enjoyed the story on the debate doctor vs. midwife assisted birth. Even today the debate continues, and this was an excellent example how back then men tried to influence women on what to do with their bodies. I think the author did an excellent job at showing the struggle Dora had to keep her status, her struggle within her self and her struggle to get her self back. It’s a very feminist book on how women struggle to gain status and find them selves, and I really enjoyed that side of it. It wasn’t overly in your face feminism, but a story that shows some of the struggles and walls they faced back then and continue even today.
What I didn’t like. For one, it wasn’t what I expected, as I said above. And I was hoping the author would show more of the “dirty” side of hospital/doctor assisted births. And there were a few instances with some of the characters bugged me. Dora putting up with her horrible husband because she wants a child bothered me a lot. It’s part of her character and her character’s development, but I really wanted to smack the woman and tell her to wake up. Although, this could also be that the author did such a good job at creating her characters, that you were able to enjoy them so much, you ended up actually caring for their well being.

In any event, it was a wonderful book - a great example on women and struggles they face, combined with lovely writing.

Would I recommend it to read: Yes I would recommend it to read. It’s not for everyone, but there are a lot who would enjoy the book. I think it can raise a lot of questions and discussions in a group. So I also would say it would be an excellent book in a reading group.

What to read next: The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay, A Good House, Midwives


  1. I did read it as part of a reading group and I was the lone voice of dissent. I was also the only male, but that isn't necessarily the reason I suppose. I was never able to believe in this story. Everything about it seemed like a 2000s version of the past, too self aware, stereotypical and trite.

  2. It sounds like a book I might find interesting, especially as I'm reading a lot about birth experiences right now.

  3. I really liked this book when I read it last year.

  4. I have had this book on my shelves for the longest time, and your review makes me want to movie it up on my list of reads for the year. I think the perspective on midwives vs. more traditional doctors would be really appealing to me, and I have always liked books about healers and such. Thanks for the great review and for lighting a fire under for me with this book!

  5. John - You're are one of the first people who didn't like the book. Looking back, I can kind of see your point about how it was in 2000. I did not see myself sitting in 1913 kitchen like Debbie Travis stated in Canada reads. Interesting point!

    Jeane - If you're reading (and enjoying) books on birth experiences, this may be a good choice for you.

    Ardentreader - It was a good book, glad you were able to enjoy it.

    Zibilee - I also had it on my shelves forever. It's an interesting debate in the book, but I don't see a lot of other people focusing on that aspect, if you read it, I'd be interested in you're thoughts on that part.