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The Midwife's Tale by Gretchen Moran Laskas

The Midwife's Tale

by Gretchen Moran Laskas

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Our local Friends of the library has frequent book sales, where I do my best to support an institution I love, both through volunteerism and patronage. At the last book sale, I found this novel tucked into the health/science section by someone who judged a book by its title, not its content. As I walked it toward the fiction section, I read the back blurb, then decided perhaps it should come home with me, instead.

In my younger days I spent much time in the West Virginia mountains. There, I got to know many folks whose family had settled the hills -- hardworking, forthright people, who cared for their families, land and mountains with a determination and strength bred through the generations. This book takes place in the early 1900's in those same hills of West Virginia. In the characters that populate the pages, I could see the ancestry of the mountain people who populated my youth.

The story itself is of Elizabeth Whitely, who was born into a long line of midwives, women who "caught babies" born to the other women of the mountains. While Elizabeth struggles with her destiny, she also struggles with her heart, for she has loved one man since childhood, and while he cares for her, he's given his heart to a woman "from off" (as we say here). Though Ivy and Elizabeth become friends, and Elizabeth becomes godmother to Ivy's daughter Lauren, she can't put aside her love for Ivy's husband. And when Ivy dies, and Elizabeth takes her place as woman of the house, it is with the knowledge that she'll never win the heart of Lauren's father. And then Elizabeth's world gets turned sideways when Lauren begins to display the gift of healing.

While this might sound like a depressing tale, it's one of those gently written novels that spins images with the words and sweeps the reader into another time. Interlaced with the unrequited love story is that of Elizabeth's relationship to her own mother, and her mother's story, also a compelling one. For me, what drove the novel was the sense of time and place, even more than the tale itself. Though the ending came a bit abruptly for me, it still rang true to the rest of the story.

All in all, when my own debut novel eventually makes an appearance, I hope it can carry the grace and dignity which this one does. ( )
  bookczuk | Nov 1, 2012 |
This is a wonderful story of the strength of women and traditions in Appalachia. Love, loss, war, epidemic and heartbreak are all endured by these strong women, and the author's descriptive storytelling makes it easy to feel as if you are right there in West Virginia with them. Highly recommended. ( )
  cattriona | Sep 24, 2010 |
Didn't like it. ( )
  picardyrose | May 18, 2010 |
Unlike Prissy in Gone With the Wind, Elizabeth Whitely knows somethin' 'bout birthin' babies. For generations, the women of her family have attended the births of most children in Kettle Valley, West Virginia—lovingly, grimly serving as midwives and, sometimes when the births go bad or the child is unwanted, acting as merciful murderers.

Mama always said that most of being a good midwife was in knowing the family history. Not just the birthing story of any given woman—although that was a good thing to keep in mind—but the whole history…Mama called this "the history of the body," as there were a lot of folks, family and otherwise, who had gone before this person, and remembering those people was nearly as important to a midwife as anything we might do with our hands.

So begins Gretchen Moran Laskas's debut novel, The Midwife's Tale, which details Elizabeth's life in the Appalachian hills in the early 1900s.

While the story is not always engaging—the young girl falls in love with an older married man, moves into his cabin when his wife dies, then helps raise his gifted daughter—the characters and period details are compelling enough to keep readers turning pages.

Mama was standing right behind me now. I could feel her breath in my hair. I could smell the scent that was Mama's—part sweet like the flow of a woman before the baby comes and part tart, like green apples in early fall.

This is just one example of Laskas's sharp nose for detail. It's moments like these which bring the book alive.

The Midwife's Tale unspools gently across the page, as comforting in its nostalgia as the sound of an old foot-pump organ in a country church. Even as new-fangled automobiles start sputtering through the streets of the nearby towns, life on Elizabeth's mountain continues at its gentle homespun pace. It's a world where the right herb or root can nurse a person back to health, where weather can strand you from the rest of your family for days on end, where homilies from Grandmother can be like a bell tolling through the rest of your life: "Sometimes the ones you know the least are the ones you can love the most. Knowing a person too well can be a heavy burden."

This includes Elizabeth's own family, to which she alternately cleaves and leaves throughout the book. Compounding her complicated feelings for her mother is the fact that she's "baseborn," which sets her apart from all those legitimate children she helps bring into the world.

Still, through all the births and deaths, family is always at the heart of the novel. Notice, for instance, how many chapters begin with the words "Mama always said…" Like oral storytelling, The Midwife's Tale feels like something which has been passed down for generations in Laskas's own family (and, indeed, in the acknowledgements that's the first thing she mentions).

Laskas's novel has the homespun purity of The Waltons, but still contains enough blood and grit to ground Elizabeth's world in reality. There are times you'll believe you're right there in the close confines of a mountain cabin, smell of candle wax in your nostrils, baby's quivering squall in your ears. The book is like a literary time machine, transporting the reader to another world, another era with just the turn of a page. ( )
1 vote davidabrams | May 26, 2006 |
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Mama always said that most of being a good midwife was in knowing the family history.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385335547, Paperback)

“I come from a long line of midwives,” narrates Elizabeth Whitely. “I was expected to follow Mama, follow Granny, follow Great-granny. In the end, I didn’t disappoint them.

Or perhaps I did. After all, there were no more midwives after me.”For generations, the women in Elizabeth’s family have brought life to Kettle Valley, West Virginia, heeding a destiny to tend its women with herbals, experience, and wisdom. But Elizabeth, who has comforted so many, has lost her heart to the one man who cannot reciprocate, even when she moves into his home to share his bed and raise his child.

Then Lauren Denniker, Elizabeth’s adopted daughter, begins to display a miraculous gift--just as Elizabeth learns that she herself is unable to have a child. How Elizabeth comes to free herself from a loveless relationship, grapple with Lauren’s astonishing abilities, and come to terms with her own emptiness is the compelling heart of this remarkable tale. Incorporating the spirited mountain mythology of prewar Appalachia, Gretchen Laskas has crafted a story as true to our time as its own, and a cast of characters as poignant as they are entirely original.

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:48 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Elizabeth, one in a long line of midwives in Kettle Valley, Virginia, learns valuable lessons about faith and identity from her adopted daughter, a healer, after suffering in a loveless marriage.

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