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The Birth House by Ami McKay (thoughts)

May 29, 2013

Birth House
I decided to read The Birth House by Ami McKay when Amy and I were looking at her bookshelves (during my Canadian Adventure) and she mentioned loving it. I ended up with mixed feelings about the book, although I can certainly see why a reader would love it.

After all, McKay has a wonderful narrative style; her voice captured me from the first page:

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.
My father, Judah Rare, built this farmhouse in 1917. It was my wedding gift. A strong house for a Rare woman, he said. I was eighteen. He and his five brothers, shipbuilders by trade, raised her worthy from timbers born on my grandfather’s land. Oak for stability and certainty, yellow birch for new life and change, spruce for protection from the world outside. Father was an intuitive carpenter, carrying out his work like holy ritual. His callused hands, veined with pride, had a memory for measure and a knowing of what it takes to withstand the sea.

I love trees and have a serious softspot for seafaring, so I found the preface irresistable. I also loved McKay’s sense of place: she brings small town Nova Scotia to life.

That being said, I do think there’s a tendency for contemporary feminist authors writing historical fiction to over-romanticise women’s work, and to make strong women of a different time period sound like strong women of our time period. For me, Dora Rare, the narrator of The Birth House, the only girl born in five generations of Rares, and apprentice to an old Marian-worshipping Acadian midwife, fell into that trap. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading strong female characters. But she just felt a bit too self aware, provided too many twenty-first century readings of her life, to strike me as entirely authentic. Not to mention, happening to find a group of women in the same small town who shared similar twenty-first century positions. Of course, I know that there were feminists in the early 20th century, and plenty more women dissatisfied with their lot who might have called themselves such, but I feel like their voices would have been different. I also found the book a bit scattered, on both the narrative and plot fronts. Narrative-wise, it’s told in first person, but in between are excerpts from Rare’s diary covering the same period/events, so I was a little confused at that. Plot-wise, I found a trip Dora felt like a contrivance on McKay’s part so that she could portray big city flapper feminists and work in stories she’d come across in her research. I was relieved when Dora got back to Nova Scotia!

Having aired my complaints, I will say that once I decided to view it less as historical fiction and more as magical realism/fairy tale-esque, I very much enjoyed the book. It was comforting and engrossing, and while I might not have completely believed Dora and her friends, I had a fun time in their company! The pages flew by. This was McKay’s debut, and I’m sure I’ll be trying her next book (The Virgin Cure) when I’m in need of some easy-going storytelling that celebrates women.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2013 9:42 am

    Great take on this one, Eva! I am itching to read it as it’s been on my want list for what seems like forever. One of these days I’ll actually get around to it.

    • May 30, 2013 10:21 am

      Thanks Andi! I remember when you were looking for books with a midwife theme. :)

  2. May 30, 2013 6:34 pm

    Yes, exactly! Sometimes I think authors are terrified to present us with characters we’re supposed to sympathize but who hold outdated views, as if it’s impossible to sympathize with someone you don’t think exactly like. Yeesh.

    • June 1, 2013 5:47 pm

      I know what you’re talking about, but I’m not sure that’s what what going on here. I think it more likely McKay was projecting her own wishes than catering to the readers. Does that make sense?

  3. June 2, 2013 6:42 pm

    I hear ya- it was the thing that irritated me about the Winona Ryder version of Little Women.

  4. June 8, 2013 11:18 am

    I have to admit I live where this book takes place so I might have been a bit biased on my take on it. I thought it was fun to know exactly where the author was talking about. :) The Virgin Cure was good, too. I will read whatever she writes because I enjoy her books and because I support a local author.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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