The Birth House by Ami McKay (thoughts)
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.