Midwives by Chris Bohjalian is a book that has made it into the somewhat selective Oprah’s Book Club. Sometimes, I get rather confused as to what the criteria is that enables a book to join this particular club. This is the second time I have read this novel. I wouldn’t call it overly stimulating, but it definitely seems to be a one-of-a-kind cross between two different genres, well, maybe more.
Our narrator for this novel is a girl named Connie Danforth. She lives in Vermont in 1981 with her mother, a midwife, and her father, an architect. She is fourteen. The book is divided into three parts. The first part explains the life of Connie and her family. The second part explains the tragedy that affects not only Connie and her family, but an entire community. The third part of the book is about the ensuing court trial that Connie’s mother must endure.
Connie describes her hippie mother as being a hippie. She was all about peace and love. She loved nothing more than helping mothers bring their babies into the world. Sibyl Danforth is not medically trained in the slightest, well, officially anyway. She is what people like to refer to as a “lay midwife.” She uses her knowledge and experience to birth babies instead of state licensed medical training. She has delivered over five-hundred babies before a terrible event befalls her.
Connie recalls how family life was before and after this event. Connie was used to being left alone because her mother had to be away from home so much delivering babies. She was used to the Vermont mud in the spring. She had a boyfriend named Tom Corts. She had a best friend named Rollie. They rode a horse named Witchgrass. She aspired at being grown-up, but in reality was still a very young girl. She watches as her family life seemingly crumbles out from under her.
One of Sibyl’s patients is a woman transplanted from Alabama. Her named is Charlotte Fugett Bedford. Her husband is a hellfire and brimstone preacher in a little Vermont church. They live in a little house in the woods. Charlotte is a rather frail-looking thing, but was determined to deliver her baby at home. Connie often babysat the son of Charlotte, Foogie or Jared before the event happened. When Charlotte goes into labor nothing is out of the ordinary. The weatherman is calling for bad weather, but that’s no surprise to anybody who lives in Vermont. Sibyl and her assistant, Anne, find their way to Charlotte’s home. Charlotte is there in labor along with her husband, Asa, the preacher.
Labor is hard for Charlotte. The weather deteriorates rapidly. Sibyl tries everything in her chest of knowledge to progress the labor. After Charlotte has tried to deliver her baby for hours and hours, it becomes apparent that this birth would be much better suited to a hospital. The phone lines are dead from too much ice. The roads are too slippery. Even when Sibyl tries to make it out of the driveway, she just ends up spraining her ankle and putting her car into a snow bank. The only thing Sibyl can do now is try to progress the labor along while trying to get help. She waits for snow plows in vain, but continues to help Charlotte.
At one moment, Charlotte goes lifeless. It appears to Sibyl that she has had a stroke. She tries CPR, but it seems in vain. In a moment of desperation, Sibyl asks Asa if she should save the baby. Sibyl uses a kitchen knife to do an emergency caesarean section on Charlotte’s Bedford’s dead body. The baby, a boy named Veil, is alive, but Charlotte is quite dead.
In the hours after this birth, it seems nothing is out of the ordinary. It seems nothing terrible will happen as a result, but it’s only for a few short hours. Soon, very soon, it becomes apparent that criminal charges will be pressed against Sibyl Danforth. The question is whether to charge her with murder or manslaughter. Sibyl is blindsided, believing that she had done everything in her power to save Charlotte and her baby, Veil. Connie watches as her mother is attacked on all sides. She listens to an answering machine fill up with call after call from reporters and investigators. She watches her parents hire a big-city lawyer to take Sibyl’s case.
Connie is almost helpless as she watches the ensuing court preparations and eventual trial. She’s too young to help in any significant way and she feels the tension. There is a way in which she helps though, and it’s a way you might not expect.
What I liked
I always enjoy reading a book about a midwife. I have read several books in my life concerning midwives. It’s a very interesting practice, that’s shamefully not as practiced in the United States as it should be. It’s all really interesting. If you dive into some of the historical information about midwifery and the general opinions of it, you can see how it has changed with the introduction of Western medicine, but without any real reason to change.
This book illustrates a fight that has been going on between two forms of healthcare for a long, long time. Midwives used to be revered, but as the profession of “doctor” came into being, midwives were often cast with suspicion. In witch trial prone areas, the midwife was usually the first person to be labeled as a witch, which is really quite sad. When doctors came into being, they argued that women should have their babies in a hospital, it would be safer. Midwives, knew it was perfectly safe for women to have babies at home since they had been doing it for thousands of years.
The United States is really the sad country with one of the lowest percentages of midwives practicing compared to most other countries. In other parts of the world, it’s really not that weird to have your baby at home. In the United States, people look at you like you’re freaking crazy if you say that. It seems to come down to a money issue in the states. It is true that some women are safer having their babies strictly in a hospital and the option should be there, that’s something both doctors, midwives, and most logically thinking people would agree on. It is not true that every woman should have her baby in a hospital, but some people, mainly doctors, think that’s the way it should be.
The nice thing about a hospital visit is that they might be able to save your life. The bad thing about that hospital visit is that you’re going to end up with a huge bill. This is a bill that will be more pricey than a bill for the same service in another country, almost without exception. The standard price of having a baby in the hospital is about twenty-thousand dollars, forty-thousand if you have a C-section. If you have your baby at home, the standard price is about fifteen-hundred dollars. That’s quite the difference isn’t it? If all women suddenly decided to have their babies at home instead of in the hospital, all these OB-GYNs would go broke. The hospitals would suffer as well. Birth is a huge industry in the United States. Once western medicine got a hold of birth as a hospital service, it has never let go.
I explained all of that in order to put the argument in this book into perspective. This book illustrates something very real that could have happened and it illustrates the consequences, quite accurately, of that event. There is a lot of bad-blood depicted in this book between the midwifery community and the medical community. That’s very realistic. That’s how it actually is. In some areas of the country this argument is lessening, while other areas are experiencing a full-on attack on the practice of midwifery.
I really liked how Chris seemed to be able to capture this argument.
What I didn’t like
I am not a fan of court books. This is a court book, it’s not a pure court book. It’s more of a hybrid, but I still don’t like court cases. There are people who freaking love books about court cases, but I really do not. It’s too strict and it’s cruel. It’s mean. I don’t like the attacking nature of court cases. I know we need courts, but I would rather stay away from them for the most part.
I cannot really tell where Chris’ loyalties lie. Is he for home birth? Is he against it? Chris is a man by the way. I do find it a bit odd that a man is writing a book about midwifery, but whatever. If you can write about something convincingly, I guess it doesn’t matter what sex you are. In the end, I can’t really tell if Chris thinks midwives are swell or if he thinks they’re a bunch of hippies. I looked him up and didn’t see any children listed in his Google bio, maybe he has some, maybe he doesn’t, but it does kind of appear that he doesn’t. So I do wonder what the interest was in writing this novel.
I don’t like these instances in which the government tries to squash out traditional practices. That is what this book is about. The government and those lobbying to it, do not want midwifery to be continued to be practiced. To me, it’s just the same as trying to outlaw heirloom breeds of pigs or say that raw milk is bad for you. I may sound totally “out-there” when I say this, but it’s just the government trying to stick its foot in freaking everything. If you want to drink raw milk, go ahead. If you want to raise purple chickens, or whatever, go ahead. If you want to have your baby at home, as long as long you are not high risk, go ahead.
It all comes down to the fact that we as individual are autonomous. We can actually think for ourselves, contrary to what many government officials believe. We can make informed choices about our choices. We’re not stupid. We’re not sheep. We’re not lemmings. We’re people. got it?
Because I don’t like stories like that, this book did kind of grate against me.
If you don’t know anything about this argument between midwifery and western medicine, this might be a good, fictional, account for you to cut your teeth on. Then you could progress onto the non-fiction memoirs of actual midwives, those are pretty good. If you like court books, you might like this book as well.
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Bohjalian-Chris, Coming of age, court, Family dynamics, Fiction, Finding Your Self, Social Commentary