After all, our lives are but a sequence of accidents – a clanking chain of chance events. A string of choices, casual or deliberate, which add up to that one big calamity we call life.
A Fine Balance
Readers of The Birth House might be grateful for the sequence of accidents and events that led Ami McKay to write her remarkable first novel. She had been living in Chicago, when she was abandoned by her boyfriend and had a terrible car accident that left her unable to work for a month. “One thing led to another and I reconnected with an old friend (who I then married) and we picked up our lives and moved to Scots Bay. The move led to the house, which led to the novel.”*
She felt it was the universe’s way of telling her that it was time for a much-needed change and, in gratitude, embarked on a year of writing thank-you notes to people, people she didn’t know, beginning with Oprah, who invited her to be on the show. The show’s topic, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, reinforced her realization that life is short, and she left Chicago determined to devote herself to her writing: “I knew that I needed to get out and tell stories in my own way.”**
Similarly, the main character of The Birth House experiences a set of chance events that dramatically influence her life. To begin with, Dora Rare is born the only daughter in five generations of her family: from birth, she is considered marked. “Long after the New England Planters’ seed wore the Mi’kmaq out of my family’s blood, I was born with coal black hair, cinnamon skin and a caul over my face.” (5) She is an oddity in Scots Bay, and over time, she is feared.
When Dora is present at the birth of a three-legged albino calf, a neighbour blames Dora for the aberration, and the whispers and nudges of suspicious, intolerant neighbours follow her as she grows. At seventeen, Dora’s mother asked her to accompany her brother to take their Aunt Fran a basket of turnips and, on their return, Miss Marie Babineau, stops in a buggy to ask Dora to help with the birthing of a baby in nearby Deer Glen, to provide another set of hands.
Dora travels to Deer Glen with Miss B because she has, from girlhood, walked down the old logging road that leads to Miss B’s cabin, to sit with her in her garden or her kitchen. When she is old enough, she begins to read some of Miss B’s books aloud, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and she memorizes the remedies that the old woman recites in verse and records in her Willow Book.
“The only people who can take loneliness away are the people who are the same,” writes Ernest Buckler in his classic Annapolis Valley novel, The Mountain and the Valley, and Dora and Miss B take away each other’s loneliness.
Both Dora and Miss B are the subject of much community gossip. “It’s talk like that that’s made us such good friends.” Despite their friendship, however, Dora is hesitant to accept the role of midwife in Scot’s Bay. Her reluctance is underscored by the historical peak of efforts to legitimize the medical profession, which sought to obliterate the traditional role of women as healers and replace it with an economic and legal definition of caretaking, which forbade women the status afforded to the emerging class of male medical practitioners.
The old house that Ami McKay now lives in, however, was once a community birthing house in Scot’s Bay, Nova Scotia. It is just as she imagines Miss B’s cabin to have been, a retreat for women and girls in need of care, where countless babies have been “caught”. Inspired by the stories people told her about the house’s history, she arranged to meet the community midwife’s daughter, a 90-year-old woman in a nursing home, who vividly recalled the names of babies her mother delivered: The Birth House took shape around the character of the woman who kept that house and, indeed, she and the other Scot’s Bay characters are at the heart of this novel.
As in other Maritime fiction, like Donna Morrissey’s Kit’s Law and Carol Bruneau’s Purple for Sky, there are many strong, vivid female characters in Ami McKay’s debut. There is an overt focus on the feminine, from natural forces and home-making to midwifery and obstetrics. Despite the fact that there are many key male characters in the story, playing both positive and negative roles, The Birth House’s Occasional Knitters Society outsisterhoods the Ya-yas. While knitting socks for soldiers in the Great War, the OKS’s members recall the overwhelming sense of support that contemporary readers have found in novels like Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April.
In Scot’s Bay, as in many communities, there was a complacent acceptance of the important role fulfilled by midwives like Miss B; her knowledge, expertise and experience earned her the respect and gratitude of many of the residents, and many residents resisted the trend of medical professionalization. This piece of history is one of several that play a significant role in Ami McKay’s novel, notably the Halifax explosion and the Spanish Influenza Epidemic in Boston.
The author, in traditional narrative and in excerpts from a variety of contemporary print sources (diaries, letters, notebooks, newsletters, advertisements and recipe books) effectively recreates a vivid historical setting. Never extraneous, these additional sources effectively allow Ami McKay’s research to permeate the narrative, just as Michael Crummey’s River Thieves depicts the extinction of the Beothuks in 19th-century Newfoundland and Merilyn Simonds’ The Holding introduces a 19th-century herbalist and healer in Ontario’s Madawaska Hills.
In addition to the historical immersion, another quality that The Birth House shares with these two novels is its poetic language. From the opening sentence, “My house stands at the edge of the earth”, it is clear that Ami McKay reads her prose aloud before she pronounces it polished. “It was the moon’s voice that called the men home, her voice that turned the tides of womanhood, her voice that pulled their babies into the light of birth.” Like the tides, there is a rhythm to Ami McKay’s prose; it simultaneously pulls readers further into the story and back again to savour a particularly lovely passage.
The truly remarkable element of Ami McKay’s debut novel, however, is that there is not one single remarkable element alone. The characterization is solid, the setting evocative, and the prose emotive, but these elements combine in a storytelling strength whose whole is even greater than the sum of its distinguished parts.
As with Wayne Johnston’s Colony of Unrequited Dreams and Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, The Birth House will appeal to a wide variety of readers. This is, perhaps, unsurprising, as Ami McKay is a committed reader herself, counting authors as diverse as Thomas Hardy, Isabel Allende, J.R.R. Tolkien and Carol Shields amongst her favourites.***
“Breathing, waking and sleeping; our lives are steamed and shaped into stories,” writes Carol Shields, in her debut novel, Small Ceremonies. Ami McKay’s first novel steams and shapes the story of Dora Rare with care, integrity and talent.
* Live chat at Chatelaine.com’s Online Book Forum: March 10, 2006
** Jodi Delong “Scots Bay’s Ami McKay is Knopf’s new face of Canadian fiction” February 22, 2006
*** Random House Q&A with Ami McKay: 2005
Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English Witches, Midwives and Nurses (1970);
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Midwife’s Tale (1990, based on 1785-1812 diary);
Merilyn Simond’s The Holding (2005, cross-time novel, 1860s-present day);
Mavis Gallant’s “The Doctor” in Home Truths.
My Canada Reads Responses (please see CBC Canada Reads for the event’s details):
Terry Fallis’ The Best Laid Plans JAN29 (CBC pitch is here)
Carol Shields’ Unless JAN31 (CBC pitch is here)
Ami McKay’s The Birth House (above) (CBC pitch is here)
Jeff Lemire’s Essex County FEB4 (CBC pitch is here)
Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage FEB6 (CBC pitch is here)