Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #100: The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman

Author Patricia Harman treats us to a fabulous debut novel which combines the reality of the Great Depression, race relations and labor organizing in the 1930s, with the personal stories of characters so real that they practically leap off the pages. Simple but compelling narrative, authentic dialogue, evocative settings, and a flesh-and-blood heroine who needs no rescuing, combine to make this a top-notch piece of fiction deserving of a much broader audience than home-birth enthusiasts.

The story is the first-person account of Patience Murphy, who has fled her radical past in Pittsburg and a dark guilty secret of her own to end up in the impoverished coal town of Liberty, West Virginia, during the depths of the Great Depression.  The 36-year-old widow is working as a midwife of just a few years’ experience, living in an unheated cabin and surviving on garden vegetables and payment in the form of the occasional chicken, ham, and sometimes a dollar or two. Haunted by her past and fearful of exposure and arrest, Patience has shed her real name and lives in relative isolation with only her bicycle for transportation around town and to surrounding ethnic communities. Her only friend is the public health nurse who is afraid of the birth process; the only doctor in town won’t treat black people or those who cannot pay; and the midwife of the black community is in her eighties and ill.

Patience’s life changes when she reluctantly takes into her home and under her wing the tough young daughter of the local mine owner’s black maid. On the verge of bankruptcy, the desperate mine owner plans to throw Bitsy into the street, and when Patience comes to deliver his baby, she acquiesces to the mother’s plea to take her daughter and train her as a midwife’s assistant. Bitsy takes to it immediately, and in return, gives Patience access to the life she has kept at arm’s length until now. Her growing friendship with the black community through Bitsy catches the attention of the Ku Klux Klan, and warnings that she needs to be “careful” ratchet up the tension.

Pulling the novel  together, of course, are the marvelous stories of the births (not all of them happy ones) that Patience attends, and the exciting overlap between her medical knowledge, creativity and sheer grit that the midwife offers to her laboring mothers, the majority of whom are too impoverished—or the “wrong” color—to avail themselves of a hospital birth. As Patience expands her circle of clients and friends—including the local vet–we see her grow in confidence and move out of her self-imprisonment.

This is an inspiring tale, based on many of the true life experiences of the author, who worked as a midwife in West Virginia and on rural communes around the country for decades, and one suspects that the author has much of the same indomitable spirit as her heroine. We are the richer for it.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #19: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver’s latest book left me craving both more and less. More of her beautifully-rendered characters, her humor-laden insights into marriage and in-laws and parenting, her often lovely descriptions of the world around us. But definitely less of her pretentiousness, her agenda-driven plotting (or should I say plodding), her rather blatant lecturing troweled on top of a simple and poignant story of human need.

Kingsolver begins her novel showing young Appalachian farmwife and mother Dellarobia Turnbow struggling uphill to the backwoods of her in-laws property for an illicit tryst with a handsome young stranger from the telephone company. She has conducted many flirtations as a fantasy-laden escape from a dull marriage and even duller existence, but this is the first time she has decided to follow through and thereby force the dissolution of her marriage. Half-way there, however, she comes upon a miraculous sight that stops her in her tracks, and which she takes as a sign to return home and become a different person: the woods appear to be aflame around a burning lake. Only later does she discover that it is a vast flock of monarch butterflies which, confused by climate changes, have settled on her land rather than make their centuries’-old annual trek to Mexico.

The town takes Dellarobia’s revelation to be divine, and some—including her embittered mother-in-law—plan to make money off it. Her father-in-law, however, has just sold logging rights to that same land, to enable him to pay off farm loans that have ballooned out of control. Dellarobia senses a change in her life, but doesn’t know what to make of it or how to make it happen. And her husband plods along, uninspired by developments around him but blindly secure in his life as husband, father, and son to his controlling mother. The media hones in on the butterflies, and one day, a handsome, sophisticated, married—and, of course, Harvard-trained–scientist shows up with a gaggle of graduate students in tow to settle on her land and begin to study the wayward migration phenomenon. Dellarobia’s newest crush ensues but before anything happens, we are informed that the stunningly gorgeous appearance of the monarchs is actually a “biological malignancy,” and the lectures on man’s inhumanity to Nature now start to come fast and furious, completely overwhelming the story.

All that said, there continue to be some lovely literary moments throughout, but I was unable to get past my irritation at the rather blatant propaganda. Another bone I have to pick is Kingsolver’s decision to inexplicably give her leading character the name of a 15th century Italian sculptor, her daughter the name of a Shakespearean heroine and her son a name which conjures up images of wealth and privilege. Her story takes place in Appalachia, for goodness sake. Even the scientist comes burdened with the name of Ovid Emerson, and his wife the name Juliet. What is Kingsolver thinking? [alert: spoilers ahead] And finally, the books’ end left me gasping in disbelief. Right after telling her precocious 6-year-old son that she and daddy are splitting and that she is going to college, the unfazed little boy heads off to school and a flood comes and washes away Dellarobia’s unsubstantial home and former life, while she watches in wonder. The End!