Winner of the 2007 Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Fiction Book of the Year
Winner of the 2007 Evergreen Award
Winner of the 2007 Atlantic Book Awards Bookseller’s Choice Award
Longlisted for the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Selected for Canada Reads 2011
I managed to finish the last Canada Reads 2011 book just in time to get a review up before the show starts on Monday. I left The Birth House to the end of my reading simply because it was the only book which I had not formed a pre-reading opinion on yet (although 2 of these opinions ended up being very wrong). Ami McKay’s book, which is carrying the banner for us proud Atlantic Canadians this year, is a historical novel about a young woman and her journey from a young midwife’s apprentice to a mature woman rights advocate. I had no idea what to think of this book as I opened it up, my one fear was that, like Unless, it would be a overwritten diatribe on women’s issues and the feminist fight. The Birth House was nothing of the sort. The story looks at a time in society where, for women especially, everyone’s lives were on the precipice of monumental change. Issues of reproductive and birthing rights are examined, modern medicine, at least what was considered modern at the time, was at odds with tradition holistic and faith-based healing, the dawn of electricity in rural Nova Scotia opened up a whole new world to people, The Great War and it’s effect on the wifes left behind, and the effects of other historical events like the Halifax Explosion and the Spanish Influenza pandemic. This book is a gift to the world and was much better than what I expected. I have already recommended this to most of my friends and co-workers.
One thing that made this a great book, instead of just a good piece of historical fiction, was the style in which it was written. The story is told with a combination of first-person narration, journal entries, newspaper clippings, visual additions, and correspondence between characters. With a lot of historical fiction, even the really good pieces, it often feels like you are slogging through it as the research and details become more important that the characters or forward movement. This was not the case in Ami McKay’s novel; she has weaved the historical accuracies seamlessly into the lives of Dora and her inner circle.
There are so many memorable scenes in this novel: one of the best descriptions of the Halifax Explosion I have read since Barometer Rising, the journal entries of Dora’s new medical device to help with her hysteria, and, one of my favorite parts, her explorations of the “big-city” of Boston. In her notes at the end of the book, Ami McKay says “[…]I wanted to arrange my words[…]by making a literary scrapbook out of Dora’s days”; that is exactly what she has done. Any of the scenes I just mentioned would easily stand alone as an engaging piece of writing; put them together and tie in such important themes, you get a piece of fiction that will be read by the general public for years and no doubt make it’s way onto High School and University reading lists.
Historical fiction has become a staple in Canadian literature, but I think that it has become a somewhat stale genre. We need more books like The Birth House taking this traditional type of book and injecting it with some new and creative style. I think Ami McKay is lucky to have Debbie Travis championing her book. This is someone who is very comfortable in front of a camera and is respected by literally millions of people. Even if it doesn’t result in a win for the author I am sure Ms. Travis’ support will at least result in lots of new exposure (and therefore a few more digits on the next royalty cheque.) As the Canada Reads show gets rolling tomorrow I wish Ms. McKay and all of her fellow authors the best of luck.