Published: August 28. 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
A debut novel featuring Patience Murphy, an Appalachian midwife in the 1930s struggling against disease, poverty, and prejudices-and her own haunting past-to bring new light, and life, into an otherwise cruel world
As a midwife working in the hardscrabble conditions of Appalachia during the Depression, Patience Murphy's only solace is her gift: the chance to escort mothers through the challanges of childbirth. Just beginning, she takes on the jobs no one else wants: those most in need-and least likely to pay. Patience is willing to do what it takes to fulfill her mentor's wishes, but starting a midwife practice means gaining trust, and Patience's secrets are too fragile to let anyone in.
A stirring piece of Americana, The Midwife of Hope River beats with authenticity as Patience faces seemingly insurmountable conditions: disease, poverty, and prejudices threaten at every turn. From the dangerous mines of West Virginia to the terrifying attentions of the Klu Klux Klan, Patience must strive to bring new light, and life, into an otherwise cruel world.
First, I have a confession. This book has been sitting on my bedside table, waiting to be read, for over 2 years. Obviously, the premise of this novel intrigued me enough to buy the book, but I just never had that push to actually read it until recently when I as contacted to review The Reluctant Midwife, the sequel to this novel. That was what I needed to finally get this book out of the TBR pile.
I was a little wary of this book. While I love Historical Fiction, it is a genre that tends to breed one of my biggest bookish pet peeves--stories with just too much going on it. To be sure, there are many, many issues addressed in this book--the Great Depression, race relations and the Ku Klux Klan, domestic abuse, women's rights, union and--of course--midwifery. Honestly, if I had known that Harman was going to go into all of these topics, I may not have even started the book. So, it is probably a good thing that I was in the dark about the plethora of subjects.
You see, Harman is probably the first author I've come across who successfully handled so many topics in one novel. This is due in most part to the structure of the novel. Patience Murphy is a woman with a past, and Harman metes out that past slowly over the course of the book. While I never felt that Harman was keeping information from me, I was always aware that there was more to Patience than I knew.
Another factor is, of course, the setting in time and place. This book is set in Depression era West Virginia. In fact, the book begins the day after the stock market crash of 1929. I don't know how Harman could have told many aspects of Patience's story without touching on these areas.
This is a very character-driven book and Harman has created a memorable character in Patience Murphy. Because we (eventually) get her life story, she comes across as a well-rounded, three-dimensional character. She is not perfect, but that makes her human. She is surrounded by a strong supporting cast. There is Bitsy, who she took on almost in charity when she was about to be fired from her domestic position and who became Patience's roommate, assistant, and friend. Mrs. Potts is the aging midwife who hands her "business" over to Patience. And there is Dr. Hester, the vet with whom Patience begins a professional relationship that soon turns into one of trust and friendship.
There are some graphic childbirth scenes which may be hard for squeamish readers. Yet,I found some of those scenes to be the most fascinating in the book. Patience is the first to admit that she is barely qualified to be a midwife and her journal about her work become almost a textbook-in-progress for her. As she meets families in their homes, readers are brought into the hardship of depression era Appalachia.
As I said, this is a very character-driven book, which I enjoy. As a result, the plot is subdued--this is not to say that there is not a plot in this book, but it definitely plays second fiddle to the characters and setting. Because I am a reader who values characters over plot, this did not bother me. However, I can see how other readers may feel that this book lacks the backbone of a strong plot.
Even though it took over 2 years for me to finally read this book, it was worth it and I am now eagerly looking forward to starting The Reluctant Midwife. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in fiction dealing with women's history or 20th century US History.
I was not solicited for this review and I received no compensation for this post.