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.

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Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #62: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

With each chapter written from the viewpoint of one of 15 different characters, and much of the writing done in the form of “stream of consciousness,” Faulkner broke new literary ground with As I Lay Dying, which he reportedly wrote in six weeks, with nary a word changed in the final published work.  It is the story of Addie Bundren, who lays dying as the book opens, forced to hear her eldest son Cash building her coffin below her window. Her husband Anse, a dirt-poor farmer in the Mississippi backwater, promises to take her body for burial to her home town of Jefferson, across the river and some 40 miles distant by wagon, and her five children ranging from Cash to little Vardamon will accompany her coffin on this odyssey as well.

As black a “comedy” as one can imagine, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. First, Addie is put in her coffin with her head where her feet should go, because the dress she is buried in bells at the feet and needs the extra room. Cash insists the coffin is thus imbalanced, but Anse ignores him. Then Vardamon, convinced his mother can’t breathe in the coffin, drills holes through the top and inadvertently drills into his mother’s face. Heavy rains cause the river to flood and washes away not one but several bridges. Anse insists on crossing the river anyway, having already lost several days and with Addie’s corpse starting to smell. The coffin floats off the wagon, the mule team drowns, and Cash not only loses his beloved carpentry tools, but also re-breaks a recently-broken leg. At risk of their lives, sons Jewel and Darl dive for the wagon and the tools, and rescue the coffin. Anse sells Jewel’s beloved horse for a new mule team, and the family moves on, but Cash must spend the rest of the journey lying atop the coffin, smelling a decomposing corpse and watching the buzzards gather.

And that’s just the beginning. Everywhere the Bundren family goes, people urge them to bury the corpse out of respect, but Anse insists on going to Jefferson, invoking his solemn promise to Addie and before God. That he has another agenda is revealed only at the very end.  The voice of the traumatized little boy is nearly impossible to comprehend, while the family’s only daughter—secretly pregnant—is angry and sullen, secretive and bitter. Jewel, we learn, is the middle son who was born of a liason between Addie and the local minister. Addie, we learn from the one chapter written from her (post-mortem?) viewpoint, hated her husband, her children, and her life, and Jewel was her only comfort. Darl, the second eldest son, is considered “strange,” but is perhaps the most sane among them.

As I struggled to figure out who the characters in this Greek tragedy were, why they were going on this odyssey from hell, and what the various currents were that were driving them, I was constantly discovering ironic little twists of fate that Faulkner enjoyed burying within this grim and depressing tale. A challenging work, to be sure, and perhaps the hardest I’ve ever had to work to read a book. Was it worth it? You tell me.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #17: Townie by Andre Dubus III

Townie is a memoir written by the author of House of Sand and Fog, among other fine novels. It portrays the journey of one young man’s descent into a personal hell, and his inspiring climb back out again. Written in novelesque fashion, it reminded me of nothing so much as a non-fiction version of some of Dennis Lehane’s poignant novels set in a south end of Boston dominated by alcohol, drugs, crime and violence. Dubus spent his impoverished childhood in the seventies moving with his divorced mom and three siblings from one dying New England mill town to the next, staying one step ahead of eviction, often going hungry and being bullied and beaten up everywhere he went. Endless television and hiding out became his and his siblings’ lives for years, their mother’s occasional magical optimism and their professor/writer father’s weekly fly-through visits their only relief from the grimness.

The constant humiliation of being a perpetual victim eroded Dubus’ soul, and at one point, as he puts it, he “broke through the membrane” of social conscience that prevents most people from using violence against another. In his teens, he began a punishing, obsessive routine to build up his body and learn to fight, and then he began to wreak revenge, looking for any and all slights—real or imagined, against himself or against another–to beat perceived bullies to a pulp, and coming near to killing several of them. One sister became a drug dealer, while his brother and youngest sister did their best to hide from their lives in their rooms. His life becomes a schizophrenic one of insightful observations on one level but a totally inability to rein in or overcome his insane fury on the other.

Dubus’ discovery of writing as a way to channel himself into something both healing and creative is a slow process, as is his shedding of the animal rage that continues to drive him. It also eventually enables him to build a relationship with his quirky father around forgiveness and a shared love of the written word. Dubus’ life is painfully depicted, beautifully rendered, and a universal warning to the rest of us that our inherent humanity is not something necessarily handed to us, but needs to be strived for and won, sometimes over and over again.