The Birth House: Caricatures


A note of caution if you’re looking for images to accompany a blog post on Ami McKay’s “The Birth House”: do not type “home birth” into google images and eat your lunch at the same time. Particularly if you are, as I am, a 28 year old woman who spends altogether too much time thinking about babies already. I’m suddenly much less keen to be pregnant. Does it have something to do with the looks of agony of labouring face? Yes. Yes it does.

You might have thought the novel would be the thing to turn me off – mothers and children dying in childbirth – but in this particular account of maternity the women who choose (or are able to choose) to have home births appear to have remarkably comfortable times delivering their babies. This remarkable ease contributes to my dissatisfaction with this novel. The midwife – Dora Rare – is characterized in the most uncomplicated of ways as the healing, caring, gentle, kind, understanding and empathetic midwife. The doctor – the strawman for the evils of modern medicine – finds himself (unfairly, I think) characterized as cruel, insensitive, cold, indifferent to the needs and desires of women.

Both characters are naught be caricatures of their professions. It is a novel that pits Midwife against Doctor; Women/Feminism against Medicine/Patriarchy; Women against Men. While the novel does well in exploring the challenges women encounter in deciding and declaring their desires for their bodies, the challenges in controlling their own bodies – both in the early 20th century and now (as good historical fiction always offers parallels to the present) – the strength of the critique of Science, Reason and Patriarchy is blunted by the overly crude representation of the Doctor and of Dora. 

Had either Dora or the Doctor some degree of complexity – something surprising about their reactions, an unanticipated decision or line of dialogue – I might have found the narrative more compelling, but as it was the story unfolded much as I expected and only as it could, ending in a near gag-induced “and they lived happily ever after-esque” conclusion. 

One of the most interesting questions the novel *could* have raised (but didn’t because it was so wedded to a staunch binary between Science and Women’s Traditional Healing Knowledge) is the space for overlap or collaboration or cooperation between science and traditional healing. No doubt the approach of the doctor – to dismiss women as hysterics – suggests that Science can only ever be a bane to women’s control of their bodies. And this representation did little to invite speculation about the opportunities for “medicine” to involve both institutionalized and individualized practices; however, I couldn’t help but place the historical narrative in the contemporary context and wish (oh how I wished) that McKay had done something to suggest the resonances in the present. For a quick search of “birth” will reveal a heated debate – one charged with judgements and dismissals as either “dangerous,” or “hegemonic” – around where and how a woman should give birth. To forget the contemporary resonance and to reduce the complexity of this narrative to one of Right and Wrong, Good Woman and Bad Guy doesn’t do justice to the questions of the reader and the potentials of the topic.

A pity, as I think there’s much room in this plot to offer something complicated and current. Too bad. 


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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction

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