Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman — 403 pgs

Patience Murphy is a midwife living in depression-era Appalachia, and she has the raw instinct and gentle strength that birthing mothers are desperate to have. The only problem is that many of her mothers are unable to pay for her services, which keeps Patience at poverty level, like so many around her. When Patience delivers a healthy infant to a wealthy couple that lost everything in the big crash, she finds that this mother can’t pay either but will give her a gift she can never replace. At first Bitsy, the African American housemaid, seems like another mouth to feed, but she is good natured and a quick study. Now that Bitsy is living with Patience, she begins to garner more mothers from the colored section of town and is soon overwhelmed with the amount of work. Yet she’s still far from wealthy. A chicken here and some firewood there make Patience and Bitsy’s lives easier, but between the racial tension burning its way through the backwoods and an unlikely friendship she begins with Hope River’s only veterinarian, Patience is treading on thin ice. As more and more women ask Patience and Bitsy into their homes for the birthing of their children, they become well known and even more highly regarded. Until the night a woman bathed in blood and carrying an infant comes crashing onto the scene. From that moment on, Patience Murphy’s life will change, as everything she knows will be forever altered. Reticent and kind, Ms. Murphy will have to use every ounce of her strength and knowledge to save a group of people that she has come to know and care for. And though Patience Murphy is gentle, she can also be tough as nails when grind leads to grit. Filled with quiet and tender moments and moments of extreme drama, The Midwife of Hope River is a triumph of historical fiction blended smoothly with the bedside trials of the women that Patience helps to deliver not only of their children, but of their sadnesses and joys as well.

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.

20 comments:

Harvee Lau said...

I do need to pick this one off the shelf and start reading. Great review!

bermudaonion said...

I met Patricia at the very first SIBA I ever attended and was struck by her intelligence and compassion for women. I'm so glad to see her book is good and I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

Anita said...

Someone is sending me this book amd I can't wait to read!!! You write beautiful reviews, it makes me want to read even more. Thank you Heather.

Beth F said...

I have this on my list -- I picked up a copy at BEA because I love the setting and time period. So glad you can recommend it.

Kathy said...

Sounds like a great read. Adding it to my TBR list. Great review today!

Ti said...

You always have such a way with words! Thrusting the story at us like someone is giving birth. That says it all. Great job. I can really get a feel for the book through your review.

Suko said...

I think I'd enjoy this book as well. Your descriptive review is tempting me to add another title to my TBR list--help!

Sandy Nawrot said...

She was a captivating speaker, even though the topic didn't grab me like it did you. I know many people were excited about the book, though, so I should probably leave my hangups behind and just read it!

Audra said...

You've sold me -- I mean, I was already there from the cover and premise, but your enthusiasm for it -- and the tidbits you shared -- have me very excited.

Buried In Print said...

Stories about midwifery immediately appeal to me and you make this one sound both accessible and rewarding; the setting sounds really interesting too. Thanks for bringing this one to our attention!

jennysbooks said...

Sounds really interesting! Do they talk about moonshine? Running moonshine? My interest in 1920s Appalacha has hitherto been heavily weighted toward people running moonshine and evading the law.

Brooke said...

Midwifery is so fascinating especially to someone like me who has no desire to actually experience childbirth! And the Appalachian region is also rich with history and tension - an area of the country I definitely need to read more about.

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

Amazing review. I haven't read Patsy Harman before, but I want to now. I love midwife stories, too. Appalachia is another one of my favorite subjects. I'm so glad I stopped by!

2 Kids and Tired Books

Andi said...

This sounds like SUCH a great book, and one I can't wait to get ahold of to satisfy my own craving for books about midwifery. :D

Aarti said...

Are you watching Call the Midwife on PBS? I hope you are! Also, I think you would really enjoy A Midwife's Tale, though it is less about midwifery than life in early America.

Marie said...

sounds like another winner! I know I have this around somewhere- time to go digging!

Melissa said...

I love midwife stories too and can't wait to read this one!

Yolanda said...

I loved this review and finding your blog. Love midwife stories and this one is already on my list

Stacy at The Novel Life said...

that is so very cool that you met Ms. Harman! I hated I couldn't attend SIBA this year but next year I am there!

You brought up some great points about Harman's book - the race relations definitely played an integral part of the storyline and I found myself enjoying Bitsy's role and spunk.

Fantastic review as always Heather! When I grow up I want to be just like you :-D

Jenny said...

This does sound really good, and I'm fascinated by the cycle of pregnancy and birth as well so I might really like this!

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