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The Birth House

By Ami McKay

Knopf Canada, 384 page, $29.95

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From the beginning of Ami McKay's debut novel, The Birth House, we know we're in for a bit of magic. McKay's narrator, Dora Rare, is the first daughter in five generations of a family that traces its roots back to the 18th-century shipwreck that established the town of Scots Bay on the Bay of Fundy. As family legend has it, the long line of men owes its origin to the bargain between a desperate woman calling her lover home and the full moon that lit his voyage.

McKay, who wrote the novel after buying a historic birth house in Scots Bay, places her magic entirely in the hands of women. It is a midwife's magic, which would once have been called witchcraft.

In 1916, Dora, as old as the new century, becomes an apprentice to Creole-Acadian midwife Marie Babineau. Her bag bulging with herbs and her neck swathed in rosary beads -- one for each birth -- Babineau can tell by glancing at a pregnant woman not just the fetal lie but also the sex of the baby and the day it will be born.

Breeches are turned with a washboard, a bag of ice and a song; impacted shoulders are freed with the briefest of caresses. When death comes, it is those who want to die who are taken: the unwanted child of an overburdened, abused mother; later, the grown sister of this dead baby, pregnant with her father's child.

Despite Babineau's gift, when Dr. Thomas, an obstetrician, establishes a maternity hospital "down the mountain" in Canning, the local women are quick to betray her. McKay deftly explores their capriciousness. In Scots Bay, an isolated town where even brides from Newfoundland are known collectively as the "women from away," Babineau is a true foreigner. Born in Louisiana, she is dark-skinned and French-speaking. Worse still, she knows all the women's secrets: Who asked for something to ensure her "courses" would flow before the month ended, who lay naked at a moonlit crossroads, hoping for a baby.

When Dr. Thomas offers anesthetized, pain-free "Twilight Sleep" births, along with a reminder that the Criminal Code of 1892 established that "failing to obtain reasonable assistance during childbirth is a crime," the women are nearly unanimous in their censure of Babineau:

"Should've given it up years ago.

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"How old do you suppose she is?"

"Now that there's a doctor nearby."

"She should."

"She should."

"She should."

"Yes, she should."

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Despite public opinion, the midwives forge on, in part because of the doctor's incompetence. Twilight Sleep is a disaster: As Dora notes, babies were "extracted" rather than birthed from these unconscious women, who slept not just through the birth but through the first several hours of their baby's life, waking to the pain of their own lacerated flesh.

McKay also has a fair bit of fun with the "superstitious ignorance" that belonged not to midwives but to turn-of-the-century doctors. Dora herself, diagnosed by Dr. Thomas as having "neurasthenia," is given a prescription of vaginal stimulation with a vibrator, a treatment that the doctor then administers.

While McKay tells a compelling story about the real historical conflict between doctors and midwives, she sometimes struggles with character, setting and voice. In contrast to the impossibly wise and benevolent midwives, Dr. Thomas is pure evil: He shoots and mounts a rare white doe, defrauds and cheats his clients, attempts to intimidate the midwives physically, and finally conspires with an alcoholic wife-abuser to frame Dora for murder.

When McKay has Dora escape to bohemian Boston, the novel loses the ballast that had been provided by the well-drawn community of Scots Bay. Outside of the Nova Scotia town, Dora's unique experience disappears into the grand events of the era: the Halifax explosion (Dora tends the wounded), the First World War (she supports pacifism, à la Sylvia Pankhurst) and, finally, the Spanish influenza (Dora saves her blueblood Boston hostess with Marie Babineau's onion-and-barley baths).

McKay also struggles with form, especially in her arbitrary use of diary entries throughout a first-person narrative.

Luckily, Dora returns to Scots Bay, and the novel ends as magically as it begins, in the quiet of the village where, "On Sunday mornings, mothers bent their knees between the stalwart pews at the Union church, praying they would have enough."

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Despite some missteps, The Birth House is compelling and lively, beautifully conjuring a close-knit community and reminding us, as Dora notes, that the miracle happens not in birth but in the love that follows.

Ilana Stanger-Ross lives in Victoria, B.C. When not working on her own novel, she studies midwifery at the University of British Columbia.

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