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The Birth House

by Ami McKay

Although she is Knopf’s New Face of Fiction for 2006, Ami McKay springs from a venerable tradition of Maritime storytelling. Her engaging first novel, set in rural Nova Scotia around the time of the First World War, also calls to mind the enormously popular fiction of L.M. Montgomery. Like Montgomery’s Anne, Jane, and Emily, McKay’s Dora Rare is an exceptional young woman, descendant of a Scottish woman shipwrecked on the Bay of Fundy and a Mi’kMaq man named Silent Rare. At 17 Dora is chosen to be an apprentice and successor to the local midwife, Miss Babineau, an old Acadian woman widely viewed as a witch.

McKay sets The Birth House against the historical backdrop of war, influenza, the Halifax Explosion, and the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Issues of women’s rights and freedoms are never far from the novel’s surface. Gradually Dora becomes the guardian of age-old female knowledge under threat from modern technology. She is forced into the fray when Dr. Gilbert Thomas, an ambitious, unscrupulous obstetrician, arrives in Scots Bay with promises of safe, painless childbirth. Young though she is, Dora knows that pain and danger are inseparable from life. With the staunch support of the Occasional Knitters Society, she fights Thomas’s hostile takeover. He counters with charges of malpractice, precipitating her flight to Boston. Meanwhile, she is courted, married, and then abandoned by a feckless husband.

McKay makes ingenious use of diary entries, letters, newspaper clippings real and imagined, invitations, and old wives’ remedies. Despite (or because of) all this stylistic variety, The Birth House builds up a strong narrative momentum. Intelligent, quirky, passionate, and funny, it deserves a wide readership and a long shelf life.