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?


Intolerable:A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee

“Intolerable is part memoir of an Arab family caught for six decades in the turmoil of Middle Eastern politics, part personal coming-out narrative and part cultural analysis. This is a story of the modern Middle East, in all its irreconcilable differences, seen through a unique lens.” (Book Jacket)

Kamal Al-Solaylee left Aden when he was three years old. His father Mohamed had been one of Aden’s “most powerful and influential businessmen.” Kamal writes that he wishes he’d “known that father and that Aden.” There are photographs of the family in the book and the author says that he prefers the history represented in those photographs  to any other “more complicated and less rosy story” about Aden.

In the ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS the author explains that Intolerable had its Intolerable“first outing…as a two-thousand-word article in The Globe and Mail’s Focus section in 2010 and was titled “From Bikinis to Burkas”. He worked on the article with the section’s editor Carol Toller and “the forty-eight hours we worked together were the most intense and rewarding in my life as a journalist. In a career of over fifteen hundred bylines, the final story was by far my most read and discussed. As it went viral, I felt part of a worldwide conversation about Islam, the middle East and social change. ”

The dedication to the book is:

To Toronto,
for giving me what I’ve been looking for:

a home

He introduces the book this way:

“I am the son of an illiterate shepherdess who was married off at fourteen and had eleven children by the time she was thirty-three.
My mother, Safia, was born and raised in Hadhramaut, a part of my home country of Yemen that is better known today as the birthplace of the bin Laden clan.When she and my father, Mohamed, were married in the fall of 1945, in the port city of Aden, than a British protectorate, he was fresh off serving a stint in the Allied army and she had just reached  puberty mere months before. A year earlier, she once confided to me, she had listened to the radio for the first time in her life and her older sister, Mariam, had talked of something called the cinema.”

Safia’s father-in-law (Mohamed’s father) “was a runaway from justice, having killed a man near the northern Yemeni town of Taiz as part of a long-standing tribal vendetta.” He had been on the run and ended up in Aden. There were no birth certificates at the time but it was believed that he was sixteen or seventeen. “He adopted the name Soylaylee – also spelled in English as Sulaili- from a small tribe that offered him shelter on the land near the border that divided what was then North and South Yemen.”

Solaylee kept in touch with his mother (he last saw her in 2006) and recalls many memories including one of her walking him home from school in 1977. “She often did that, because she worried about her youngest child crossing streets by himself. I was about to turn thirteen, a year younger than she was when she got married, and, like many children in Cairo, was discovering Western pop music.” After his year-end exams she bought him a copy of Olivia Newton John’s album Come On Over: a gift he still keeps “as a memento of time, lives and a family long gone.”

He writes that he was struck by “her ability to bridge the gaps between her lives as a young girl, a middle-aged mother and now an elderly woman.”

Solaylee’s trips back to Yemen were stressful, physically and emotionally. The gaps between himself and his family became more pronounced. His trips caused serious depression and “a lot of willpower to recover from.” He locked the pictures from one of his later trips in a filing cabinet in his Toronto apartment. “Not even my dearest friends have seen them and I rarely look at them. They represent a descent into a world that, to me, in intolerable.”

A difficult read in a number of ways but also rewarding for the information, comprehension and awareness that it provides. A Canada Reads choice in 2015.