Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

I have wanted to read this book since forever and I have no idea why. Something I heard somewhere? Something someone told me? Whatever it was I should have heeded it much sooner because it turned out to be a rewarding and pleasureable read as well as informative.

Connie Danforth is writing from the perspective of a thirty year old,Midwives remembering a year when she was fourteen and living in the small rural village of Reddington, Vermont. Her mother Sibyl was a midwife and Connie accompanied her to deliveries if her father was not home or if a babysitter was unavailable.

“I used the word vulva as a child the way some kids said butt or penis or puke. It wasn’t a swear exactly, but I knew it had an edge to it that could stop adults cold in their tracks. Vulva was one of those words that in every household but ours conveyed emotion and sentiments at the same time that it suggested a simple part of the basic human anatomy for one sex or an act – like vomiting – that was a pretty basic bodily function.”

Connie witnessed her first home delivery when she was not quite eight and it was the birth of Emily Joy Pine. An apprentice who had already helped Sibyl with approximately forty births was there before Connie and her mother. In Connie’s words: “I didn’t know then that a pregnant belly was a pretty solid affair, and so I expected it to flatten and slip to her sides like a dollop of mayonnaise when she lay back; when it didn’t, when it rose from the bed like a mountain, I stared with such wonder in my eyes that Lori (mother) rolled her face toward me and panted what I have since come to believe was the word “Condoms.”
MidwivesI’ve never figured out whether the word was meant for me as a piece of advice that I should take to heart, as in “Demand that your man always wears a condom so you don’t end up trying to push a pickle through a straw,” or as a warning against that particular form of contraception: “This is all the fault of a condom. There are better forms of birth control out there, and if I’d had any sense at all, I’d have used one.”

It was quite likely that Lori spoke Connie’s name which was what Connie’s mother assumed when she asked Lori if she minded whether Connie stayed in the room. Lori replied “What’s one more pair of eyes, Sibyl?”

“I hadn’t really seen an adult in pain until then”. Connie also gets to see her mother at work. Both of these experiences strike me as things that would have contributed greatly to Connie’s view of the world. She was an astute observer and records that she doesn’t think the pain scarred her but “to this day I do remember some specific sounds and images very, very well”.

At the beginning of most chapters entries from  Sibyl Danforth’s journals appear and these reveal much about Sibyl’s life and thoughts which Connie’s perspective would not reveal to us and so are essential to the story.  There follows an entry from Sibyl’s journal just preceding the central event of the book:

Lonely births are the saddest things in the world. They can bring me down for days.
Charlotte Bedford’s birth might be a lonely birth. At least the potential ‘s there. Charlotte has no family anywhere near here, except Asa. And Asa is a sweet man, but he’s so involved with his congregation he doesn’t seem to have enough energy left for Charlotte.
And I don’t think I’ve met a single female friend of hers. Female or male! She’s met very few people outside of her husband’s congregation, she says when we talk and they keep a certain respectful distance because she’s the new preacher’s wife. I may be her closest friend up here, and so her prenatal visits go on forever.
No doubt about it, hers could be a lonely birth……”

“Like everything else surrounding the birth of Veil Bedford, it didn’t work out as my mother expected. News of accidental death, especially when it is grisly, travels fast in our corner of Vermont…When people die, people talk-especially teenagers.”

What happens next is a suspenseful and compelling tale filled with drama and philosophical issues that will stay with you long past the last entry from Sibyl’s journal. Chris Bohjalian has written at least 15 novels: have you read any that you would recommend?