Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

I know that even the word “midwives” can raise hackles. Everyone has an opinion on midwives and home births, and I have seen discussions of the topic get rather heated. While this book is about a midwife who is on trial for a death that occurred while she was assisting a woman in labor, it’s not really about whether midwives should be allowed to assist in homebirths in this country (I would say that it offers both sides fairly well). So that’s just a little disclaimer before we start.

Not counting the classics (who am I to argue with Anna Karenina?), Midwives is, hands down, the best Oprah book I have read. I could not put it down. I had to know what was going to happen. And the payoff? Was worth every minute of frantic reading.

Midwives tells the story of Sibyl Danforth, a respected midwife who feels strongly that women should be able to have their babies at home, if they so choose. She has worked as a midwife for many years, and she doesn’t fear the medical community – at the first sign of danger, she takes the mother to the hospital. Her statistics are as good or better than any doctor’s. She takes her job very seriously, and treats her patients with love and care and respect.

The night that Charlotte Bedford goes into labor, though, an ice storm makes a trip to the hospital impossible. Sibyl does the best that she can, but Charlotte has a stroke and dies. Sibyl performs a c-section on the dead woman and saves the baby. But . . . was Charlotte really dead? Or did the c-section kill her? Sibyl believes that Charlotte was dead. The doctor who performs the autopsy isn’t so sure. Neither is Sibyl’s assistant or Charlotte’s husband. And, suddenly, Sibyl is on trial for murder.

The story is told by Sibyl’s daughter, Connie, who was 14 at the time of the trial and has since grown up to be an obstetrician. This is Connie’s coming-of-age story as much as her the story of her mother’s trial – she learns, in many ways, to take care of herself as her parents are consumed with the details of the trial. Connie includes her mother’s journals at the beginning of many of the chapters, and those journals come to play a crucial role in the story. Therefore, all the words in the story are either Connie’s or Sibyl’s, which is even more interesting when you remember that the author, Chris Bohjalian, is a man. Sometimes I read a book about a woman that is written by a man, and I laugh. We have talked about that in my book club before. I definitely did not feel that way during this book – Chris Bohjalian sold me on these women from the very beginning.

Many reviews I read compared this story to To Kill a Mockingbird, probably because of the court drama and the daughter’s perspective. I can see those comparisons, but I didn’t think of To Kill a Mockingbird while I was reading it, and now, in retrospect, I see those echoes only in the structure of the story, not in the story itself.

Midwives is about right and wrong, the resentment and dichotomy between the medical community and midwives, and about what these issues mean for one family in Vermont. The novel is sympathetic to midwives while asking difficult questions about the safety of homebirths. It didn’t offer easy answers to any of the questions that it raised. It simply told the story of the consequences of Sibyl’s actions that night, how it changed her, and how it changed her family.

I couldn’t necessarily tell you why this book resonated so deeply with me. I am only interested in the idea of homebirths in that I know people who have had them, not because it’s something I myself would like to experience or pursue. My parents have never been involved in something as serious as Sibyl’s trial. My adolescence didn’t unfold in the same way that Connie’s did. The characters in this novel, though, were caring, interesting, flawed individuals, and I think that, in the end, that’s why I was so hooked that I had to be forced to turn my light off at night. And I really like sleep.

If this entry is a bit stilted, it’s because one of the things that resonated most deeply with me was the ending. I think some people could see the ending as cheap or shocking, but I thought the pacing (and thus the end) was set up exactly how a daughter would tell the story of her mother’s trial. What I liked most about this story is that, at the center of it was the quest for truth, and how, in the pursuit of truth, both mother and daughter sought to protect each other.

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  1. […] obsession with Bohjalian started with Midwives.  I picked it up after my friend, Kari, talked about it on her blog.  It’s an intense look, through the eyes of a 14 year old girl, at midwifery (something I am […]