I think everyone in the world knows that I love midwife stories, but I also love Patricia Harman. I got the chance to see her speak at the SIBA Supper this year, and had huge love for her biography, Arms Wide Open. When someone asks me what I like to read about, midwives often top the list, and this fascination started early and is very long lived. I even have a very good friend who is a midwife, and it’s so interesting to hear her stories and live vicariously through them. When I came back from SIBA, this was the first book I picked up out of my haul. And Patricia is just as interesting on the page as she is on the stage. I relished this book and often lingered over single sentences as well as long passages.
One of the most striking things about this book was the setting. Rural Appalachia in the 20s was a place and time that I hadn’t explored before. When people today talk about being poor, there’s a radical difference from today’s economic status as poor than the types of poor mountain people that Patience worked for. Often many lived cramped into one dwelling, the younger children being taken care of by the older, and the men away in mines that were often hazardous and deadly. Patience not only delivers the children of these miners, but ministers to them and cares for them as individuals. And in this book, I truly found the meaning of dirt poor, with women and children living in domiciles that literally had floors made of dirt. Patience never turned a patient away, even when she knew that she wouldn’t be paid.
There was a lot of tension surrounding race relations, and this was brought to a head when Bitsy, a young black woman, moved in with Patience, a genteel white woman. Bitsy and Patience had a strong relationship and looked on each other as kin after a time, though Bitsy had other family still living and working in other parts of the woods. Harman doesn’t mince words when she speaks of the violence with which the Klu Klux Klan, spread in small groups around Appalachia, would take racial matters into their own hands. Even Patience feels the sting of this racism, as her friends and colleagues begin to look down at her for housing Bitsy. This puts both of the women in danger and forms the crux of a violent incident that rears its ugly head in the middle of the book.
The best parts of this book for me were the actual deliveries that took place in cabins, lean-tos, and sometimes even out in the woods. I learned so much from Harman’s stories about the cycle of pregnancy and birth, and the complications and the beauty of a woman bearing a child under almost every condition. Some births are easy and some end tragically, but Patience and Bitsy give every birth their all and become the inspiring angels to women all over the mountains. This story also contains elements of mystery and romance as well as all the other points I’ve mentioned above. Harman delivers her story like a woman giving birth, thrusting and pushing it at her readers until, eventually, her tale emerges fully formed and beautiful. It was a book that I never wanted to end.
If you haven’t tried out any of Patsy Harman’s books, this would be a great place to start, as it’s a story that has all the elements and hallmarks of a fantastic read. It covers so many topics and situations that the reader never becomes bored or overtaxed, and it radiates light and hope as it shines light into the dark wilderness of Appalachia. It’s a story about the uniting of women and the repercussions that these relationships and bonds have. A very solid and extremely well executed book. Highly recommended.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.