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The Book buzz

Two novels on midwives

While biographies document the careers and accomplishments of remarkable women, historical fiction also captures their dedication, internal fortitude, and self-sacrifice.

Margery Kelley of Scituate — a former hospice worker, former nurse, and grandmother of five — also has found historical fiction that provides unique insights into her chosen field.

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As a girl, Kelley remembers being inspired by biographies of Clara Barton and Amelia Earhart.

“While my classmates were fascinated by Earhart’s daring flying ability, I was struck by the fact that Earhart, as a very young woman, served as an Army nurse in Canada during World War I . . . but I always wondered what that experience was really like. It was only in later years that I discovered that reading historical fiction was a good way of enriching my understanding of the historical record.”

A recent and compelling book that falls in this genre, Kelly says, is Roberta Rich’s debut novel, “The Midwife of Venice.”

The novel is set in 1575 and focuses on the lives of Hannah Levi, a Jewish midwife who lives in the Ghetto Nuovo in Venice, and her husband, Isaac, who is captured at sea by mercenaries and shipped to Malta to be sold as a slave.

Isaac is a man gifted in language and writing, but as a prisoner must survive brutal conditions where these talents will not protect him from starvation, torture, and illness.

Hannah is known throughout Venice for her skill at handling difficult births, and has designed a secret “birthing spoon” to assist in deliveries.

But when she is approached by a Christian nobleman who implores her to attend to his wife, who is in a difficult labor, Hannah is deeply conflicted. A papal edict prohibits Jews from rendering care to any Christian, but the exorbitant fee offered by the nobleman would give her enough to pay the ransom for her husband.

There’s also the moral question of whether she can refuse to help any woman who is suffering, regardless of her religion.

This richly woven and fast-paced tale blends vivid characterizations with an examination of the religious differences and social mores of the time, and offers a fascinating look at midwifery in the 16th century.

According to Kelley, this novel, “is at once both an epic tale and a sweeping love story of devotion. But what it reveals is that remarkable women across the centuries, like Hannah Levi, are those who change the world by either struggling against, adapting to, or ignoring the cultural strictures laid on them.”

"Midwives" by Chris Bohjalian.

Kelley adds that the novel “not only captures the dark and dangerous living conditions along the canals with the plague imminent, but the peril and persecution facing Jews in 16th century Europe.”

To Kelley, “the real power of this novel lies in the rich detail involved in midwife deliveries during a time where nothing’s really known of the importance of sterile conditions, and medical practice is heavily rooted in intuition and superstition.”

Kelly marveled at the courage of midwives who tried to deliver a baby by caesarean section or with early forceps, “because at best, should anything go wrong, she’s a pariah in the community, and at worst, she’s accused of witchcraft and executed.”

She adds, “Not only were the women who were pregnant forced to be brave, but the midwives were true heroines to stand by them.”

Another great read to follow this, Kelley suggests, is “Midwives,” a 1998 novel by Chris Bohjalian.

This novel, set in 1981 in rural Vermont, is told through the eyes of the 14-year-old daughter of an experienced midwife named Sybil Danforth.

One night, she performs an emergency caesarean section on a mother who appears to have died in labor. But her assistant later says the mother wasn’t dead at the time, and it was Sybil who caused her death.

The ensuing trial polarizes the community.

Kelley says, “This is a great read and a fascinating followup for those interested in the topic, because even centuries later, readers will recognize that the trial has all the earmarks of a witch hunt, much like Roberta Rich describes in the 16th century.”

But in “Midwives,’’ Kelley says, the whole midwife profession is on trial and midwives are forced to confront the antagonism of doctors, the law, and even other women who believe solely in hospital birthing.

Kelley concludes, “I am always concerned with preserving life as a former nurse, and regardless of personal views on home birthing, all women at one point or another face questions of mortality. Books like the ones I have recommended remind us that there are many amongst us who have faced it head on with grace, strength, and great courage.

“And I like to think that reading about such women reminds each of us that we may be cut of the same cloth.”

Nancy Harris can be reached at dr.nancy23@gmail.com.
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