The Birth House by Ami McKay

One of the first books I read this year and easily the best novel I encountered in 2006, this account of a midwife in turn-of-the-(20th)-century Nova Scotia is everything a novel should be: funny and tragic, joyful and sorrowful, filled with rich, carefully drawn characters and experiences that linger long in the mind.

The Birth House
spent most of the year on bestseller lists and marked the arrival of a splendid new talent. I can’t wait to see what Ami McKay does next.
– Robert Wiersema, for the Vancouver Sun.

Ami McKay’s book The Birth House is a natural selection for book clubs. Set in rural Nova Scotia circa the First World War, it tells the story of Dora Rare, the “only daughter in five generations of Rares.” Dora is a smart girl who spends much of her time with Miss B, the area midwife. Miss B is part-healer and part-witch and Dora learns much under her tutelage.

Truthfully, it took me a while to get settled into Dora’s quiet world, but the book’s charms are undeniable. For one thing, Dora is utterly likeable. She is kind and sensible and although she is young, she is no shrinking violet. McKay does a wonderful job of creating a world far removed from technology and the horrors of the war, but certainly not immune to either. For example, Dora’s faith in midwifery is tested (as is the faith of all the women of her community) when Dr. Thomas arrives in the area and sets up a hospital, offering women pain-free births. And when the Halifax Explosion of 1917 happens, Dora rushes off to help and is forever changed by the experience. Scots Bay isn’t modern and McKay paints a riveting picture of poverty and backwoods thinking.

But the book isn’t without a sense of humour either. Dora’s marriage to town hunk, Archer, necessitates a visit to Dr. Thomas where he diagnoses her with “neurasthenia” and prescribes treatment using the Swedish Movement Health Generator. I dare you to keep a stright face.

The Birth House isn’t a flashy book, but it’s a book that will resonate with readers, particularly women, and I heartily recommend it.

The Birth House Web site

Ami McKay’s MYSpace

Reading Guide


FOOD

Groaning Cake
The tradition of the groaning cake, or kimbly at (or following) a birth is an ancient one. Wives’ tales say that the scent of a groaning cake being baked in the birth house helps to ease the mother’s pain. Some say if a mother breaks the eggs while she’s aching, her labour won’t last as long. Others say that if a family wants prosperity and fertility, the father must pass pieces of the cake to friends and family the first time the mother and baby are “churched” (or the first time they go to a public gathering) after a birth. Many cultures share similar traditions…a special dish, bread, or drink, spiced with cinnamon, all spice, and/or ginger. At one time there was even a “groaning ale” made to go with it…

I made groaning cake the day of my son’s home birth and my neighbour brought me “health bread” the day after the birth. This recipe is a combination of the two. It has apple, molasses, orange juice and spices and can really help to see a woman through a long labour, or give her strength after the birth!

2 ½ Cups Flour
3 eggs
2 tsp. Baking powder
½ Cup oil
1 tsp. Baking soda
½ Cup orange juice
2 tsp. Cinnamon
¼ Cup molasses
½ tsp. Ground cloves
1 1/3 Cups sugar
1 ½ cups apple (grated, no skin)
1 tsp. Almond extract

Sift dry ingredients together. Add apple. Beat eggs. Add oil, orange juice, molasses and sugar. Add to dry ingredients. Mix well. Add almond extract. Bake at 350 F. for 35-40 minutes. Makes two 9 X 5 loaves or about 18 muffins.

Additions: raisins, dates, dried fruits, or nuts.

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