Book Club: Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

October 15, 2009

200px-ChrisBohjalian_MidwivesMidwives is told from the point of view of Connie, the 14-year-old daughter of Sybil, a lay midwife in northern Vermont in the early 1980’s. Sybil is an experienced and respected midwife, a hippie who is passionate about what she does. One terrible night she finds herself at a home birth that goes terribly wrong, and she is unable to transport the mother to the hospital due to a storm. Sybil makes the decision to do a C-section on the mother, who she believes is dead, in order to save the baby, which she does. Later, her assistant and the father of the baby second-guess her and claim that the mother was not, in fact, dead. This book is the story of that incident, Sybil’s subsequent trial, and the impact of the event on her family.

First of all, the story is extremely well-written. It doesn’t feel at all like your typical courtroom drama. Overall I found it was primarily a story about Connie and her family during this tumultuous time. The author included many small anecdotes along the way which weren’t necessarily important to the plot, but developed the characters and served to help the reader get an accurate feeling of what their family life was like. For example, near the end of the trial when things are the most stressful (page 249 my version), Connie tells us about how her father has three dozen roses with intricate cards he made himself waiting for her mother when they get home. She tells us how her mother is still talking about it later that night, and how she brags about her father to her friends. I love that. I love how it shows the strength of their marriage despite all the obvious threats to it.

Giving away the ending now, I was actually very surprised that Sybil was acquitted. Although I’m not the type of person who tries to figure things out ahead of time (maybe that’s why I loved The Complete Sherlock Holmes so much, because the endings had me going “aha!” every time), I thought that there was heavy foreshadowing that she would be convicted. (But maybe I’m just dense.) Although I believe that the mother probably was technically alive when the C-section was done (especially based on Sybil’s final journal entry in which it is revealed she saw the body “flinch”), I agree that she shouldn’t have been convicted because of reasonable doubt. She didn’t do anything out of malicious intent, and ended up giving up her practice anyway.

On the whole I liked all of the main characters. I found the attorney Stephen Hastings extremely likeable. I got mad at the father of the baby and Sybil’s assistant Ann for turning on her, even though they were the ones that gave her the knife, and did nothing to stop her. Sybil’s husband was so sweet, a man that you would want by your side during an ordeal such as this one.

When a book is written in first person, I find that if I like the narrator it makes a huge difference. I liked Connie. She spoke looking back on the incident, from her 30’s, having gone to medical school to become an OB/GYN. I felt that she had a good understanding of her own bias, but the story itself represented both sides of the issue fairly equally. I could see how someone would finish this book being completely sympathetic to midwives and love the idea of a home birth, but on the other hand I know that someone could read it and be totally turned off to the whole thing, thinking it is irresponsible. I have, in fact, heard both reactions.

The idea of home births and midwives is controversial. I can’t help but thinking about the Gilmore Girls episode where Sookie (Lorelai’s best friend) uses a midwife. This explains it pretty well:

Jackson: So I got the plastic sheet on the bed, it fits perfectly.
Sookie: Excellent!
Lorelai: What’s that for?
J: She doesn’t know?
L: Know about what?
S: You ready? This is big. It’s really good and I want you to just slowly drink it in, no big gulps.
L: I’m ready to take a sip.
S: We’re skipping the hospital and having the baby here!
L: Here in your house?
S: In our bed!
L: Hence the sheet.
J: Got a honey of a sheet, it’s the top of the line. Little thing’ll come out and carry him right into the catcher’s arms.
L: While we all yell, “Hey batter batter batter”?
S: He means the midwife. Got the best one on the eastern seaboard!
J: You look mystified.
L: No! It’s just that…you guys have done lots of research on this, right?
S: Millions of babies have been born this way!
J: It’s a great tradition.
S: And hospitals are so cold, you know, so full of infections.
J: And dead people.
S: And sometimes the dead people have infections.
J: And if they’re not dead yet, they die.
L: All true.
J: But the best thing about having little Davey or Colgate here: zero chance of bringing home the wrong baby. What comes out of her here, stays here!

Lots of things about home birth appeal to me, other than making sure I get the right baby. Actually, the only thing I really have any objection to at all is using a lay midwife. I understand that experience counts for a whole lot, but I also think that there is a reason people are trained for years in medicine or nursing. If I were to have a home birth, I would use a medically trained midwife. I am obviously very comfortable in a hospital though, so I’ll probably just end up having my future babies there, if God chooses to grant me any. But, alas, that decision does not need to be made now.

I give this book 4 out of 5 stars. Anyone out there read it? What are your thoughts?


Next month’s book is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. This year’s Pullitzer Prize winner!

Posted in: books & reading, book reviews, books & reading

Comments on Book Club: Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

  1. 1

    From SoMi's Nilsa:

    I read Midwives years ago and felt it was very powerfully written. I currently have a friend who has decided to have a home birth. Personally, it makes me very uncomfortable to think about. People no longer have babies at home for a reason – there’s a reason to be in a hospital, close to the professionals and medicine and equipment. Seconds, minutes can matter when it’s life and death. Why add such a level of risk? And before I drive myself insane thinking about it, I try to turn my thoughts to hope that everything goes smoothly. Because really, it’s not my decision to make.

  2. 2

    From mediumcrazy:

    I love you for including a lengthy Gilmore Girls quote. I will never ever tire of that show.

  3. 3

    From Rae:

    Ah! So I had every intention of finishing this book… and then moving happened and I had to return everything to the library before I was done.

    I am pretty much with you when it comes to home births/midwives. I don’t think that doctors are needed for most births (there is such a thing as training to handle problems rather than gaining experience in normal birthing) but I also don’t think that I would want someone whose only formal training was attending other births.

  4. 4

    From Naomi:

    I don’t know if you know this, but my brother was actually born at home, and my parents tried to do it with my sister as well. I’ve given serious thought to using a mid-wife and doing a home birth, I’ve met several women who have done it. However, after learning some of the risks, I’m more apt to the idea of giving birth in a hospital, but having the delivery done by a mid-wife.

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