This had been in my pile of books to read for a while and something about it kept making me put it off. I think it was the thought that it is set in the early 1900s that made me dismiss it as my next read so often, but I eventually needed a change in direction in my genre and picked this up.
Elizabeth Whitely had been born to a long line of midwives and everyone expected her to be no different from her mother and grand-mother before. Elizabeth settled into the lifestyle well if somewhat reluctantly, and helped her mother deliver the womens babies around Dennikers Mountain in West Virginia. She learned the vocation well and her granny taught her the family knowledge of herbals to relieve pain and a lot more besides. As she grew older and more involved in the birthings she gained knowledge of all the writings her mother would enter into the volumes of black ledgers lining their cabinet, the names and dates of all the births that had occurred through the generations of her family. She would happily read them until one night her mother came home from a birth and Elizabeth witnessed her entering details into a red ledger. A ledger she had not seen before and knew nothing of its contents.
The truth she was told about the contents turned her from her mother and her familys way of life and up into the mountains to stay with the wife of the one man she had loved her whole life, Alvin Denniker.
I have to say I have never read a book that was not set in a time frame I have been familiar with. Everything I have read before has been set in the 70s upwards so to read of life in the early 1900s, especially one which is filled with tales of midwifery and the way families had to live back then was a real eye opener. I was enthralled from the start as I do have an interest in midwives as a general occupation and so found the detailed descriptions of hard labours and difficult births, as well as the number of children some of these families had very appealing to read about. The content of the red book was horrific though and I can only guess these things really happened back then. I dont want to reveal the substance in case it spoils the story for you.
I surprised myself with the way in which I was drawn into the story, of Elizabeths attitude at times and her mothers weary yet wise way with words and actions. The love between mother and daughter is written about so cleverly, that although you dont read them telling each other the words all the time, the very actions and thoughts are obvious in their ways. I loved interpreting this for myself and felt extreme sympathy for them at times as it was not an easy life for anyone on the mountain.
Her relationship with Ivy and Alvin Denniker, the couple she stayed with after leaving her mothers cabin, is remarkable as well. She had grown up falling slowly in love with Alvin, keeping her feelings secret, as only a teenage girl can do, then finding he had returned from his travels with a new young wife, Ivy, her heart was almost broken. She hated Ivy with a passion for she had everything Elizabeth wanted in her life, but despite her hatred she found she liked Ivy when they got to know each other starting with the delivery of her daughter, Lauren. This relationship made me feel content that Elizabeth would begin to mend her life and find something solid to go forward with and even though I had read the back of the book and knew it could not last long I was still desperately disappointed when their friendship ended before its time.
The Midwifes Tale is a short book, at only 239 pages, but one that was read neatly in a few days and thoroughly enjoyed. There wasnt anything specific that stays in my mind as a best bit, but rather it was a continuation of well thought out and interesting story developments. There were turns in the book that were completely unexpected and surprised me in a good way and other plot turns that I had seen coming and welcomed. I could imagine this as an old film on the TV, where story lines were never really too in your face but instead dealt with issues like love and growing up and that for me is probably the essence of this book. Its a love story from a teenagers point of view through to her thirties and we get to read about her life and loves, thoughts and experiences along with her and her family. While it may not be outstanding in the plot it is certainly an enjoyable and engrossing book and one that I am glad finally made it to my next to be read pile.
I dont really know why I picked this book up. I think perhaps it was because the title reminded me of titles such as The Abortionists Daughter and The Timekeepers Wife, neither of which I have read, but I keep meaning to. Whatever the reason, Im certainly glad I chose it. It held my attention from page one and I read it quickly in two days because I so desperately wanted to know how the book was going to end rare for a non crime fiction book. This is all the more impressive because it is the authors first book.
Elizabeth is the latest of generations of her family to become a midwife. Using herbs and methods passed down from her predecessors, she and her mother help women through one of the hardest parts of their lives. One day, however, she realises that her job entails rather more than just helping new life into the world; it also involves bringing an end to the lives of babies that are not born perfect. Elizabeth is horrified and loses faith in her work.
Shortly afterwards, the only man she has ever loved, Alvin Denniker, loses his wife to illness. Prostrated with grief, he cannot cope with raising his daughter and so Elizabeth moves in to take care of them both. But something is missing from Elizabeths life. She knows she is second-best to Alvins first wife and the love that she has for his daughter Lauren is not enough to make up for this. On top of that, Lauren has a talent that may bring the whole family down if it comes out.
I immediately liked Elizabeth. She is a quiet, hard-working girl, contented with her lot until she realises that if she is to continue in her career, she will have blood on her hands. Unselfishly, she gives up all thoughts of her own happiness to care for Alvin and his daughter, even though she knows that Alvin will never love her in the same way that he did his first wife. It is during the first few years of her relationship with Alvin that she really grows up and realises that life is not always as simple as she had been led to believe. I found Elizabeth a hugely believable character, for whom I came to really care.
Elizabeth is obviously the main character in the book; that blatantly shines through. The other characters, Alvin, Lauren and Elizabeths mother are important because of the way that they affect Elizabeth and her life. Alvin is a selfish man who sees Elizabeth as a housekeeper and little else, until it is too late. Lauren is much more appreciative, seeing Elizabeth as her real mother. The bond between the two of them is tight and beautifully described. Elizabeths mother is a very well-drawn character. A single, unmarried mother, very much frowned upon at the beginning of the twentieth century, she brought Elizabeth up on her own and often comes across as being overly strict and hard-hearted. However, she does soften as the story continues and her love for her daughter and vice versa is beautifully described.
For a first effort, this book was very well written. I could really visualise the mountain on which the characters lived and the emphasis on tiny things, like a piece of embroidery really held my attention. The characters were very natural and excellently drawn.
The subject matter was an interesting one, although some could find it disturbing. There are a lot of descriptions of women in the throes of giving birth and it is quite explicit. Although I hate to judge, I wouldnt be surprised if men found the book rather uncomfortable to read.
Another thing that I personally found disturbing was the fact that Elizabeth initially couldnt have her own children. This was a little too close for comfort for me and towards the end of the book, I found myself sobbing so hard I could barely see to read. At the same time, the fact that a book can affect me like this can only mean that it is well written. This doesnt mean the book is all doom and gloom however; far from it.
I thought this was an excellent book. It moved me in a way that books rarely do. I can imagine that it is not everyones cup of tea; anyone who cant understand the pain of not being able to have children may not find it so gripping. However, as far as I am concerned, it was a stunning book and I can highly recommend it.
The book is available from play.com for £5.49. Published by Judy Piatkus Publishers, it has 243 pages. ISBN: 0749934557
Elizabeth comes from a long line of midwives, and so was expected to follow suit. Soon she loses faith in her vocation and her heart to a man who will never return his love, even when she moves into his home to raise his child. Elizabeth must also come to terms with the fact that she is barren.