Think PBS’s wonderful series Call the Midwife meets the classic epic The Grapes of Wrath, and you will have a sense of the flavor and heft of Patricia Harman’s wonderful debut novel The Midwife of Hope River. Harman is, herself, a trained midwife, so her tale has a realistic and readable feel. Prior to this novel, Harman wrote a couple of autobiographical books about the science of midwifery.
In an effort to escape her past, our protagonist changes her name to Patience Murphy and moves somewhere where no one will find her – the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. She has some training as a midwife, and she uses her skills in her new home to provide services for the women of her town. The time period: just after the stock market crash of 1929.
Times are tough, and money is scarce. But Patience lives a good life far away from her past and delivers babies for blacks and whites, those with money and those without, without questions. After all, she has her own history. She is often paid in flour or corn meal or a freshly-killed chicken rather than money. It’s the Great Depression.
The story is slow moving, but told in a beautiful manner. We eventually learn about Patience’s past, but the author takes her time letting us know the truth. In the meantime, we get to know Patience’s heart, and can’t help but love her.
The Midwife of Hope River is a history lesson as well as a novel. It provides information about race relations, medical care in the early 20th century, midwifery, the dangers of coal mining, the Depression, and the fight for safe working conditions. But we are also told about the satisfaction of friendship and love.
Like Call the Midwife, there are vivid descriptions of childbirth. I was somewhat concerned that reading about birth after birth after birth would get old, but it didn’t. The details weren’t graphic, and the care and love shown by Patience and her apprentice, African-American Bitsy, makes for fine reading. You can certainly tell the author is a midwife.
I loved this book. I had never heard of it until I came across its sequel, The Reluctant Midwife, via Book Bub. I am looking forward to reading on about the characters of Hope River. Definitely a woman’s book, but one worth reading.
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