Category Archives: building up community

The Birth House by Ami McKay

The Birth House


  • Anyone anxious for a quick read
  • Women interested in natural childbirth
  • People with a love for historical fiction

The Book

Canada Reads recently announced the 2011 picks.  I decided this year would be a good year to pay attention to Canada Reads.  While perusing CBC’s website, I discovered that the criteria for the books is not merit. Canadian celebrities pick their favourite books. This made me doubt the value in reading the books.  I mean, why should Roch Voisine have a say in what I read.  (For the record, he’s yet to join the Canada Reads Alumni).  But I thought this book would be fun, despite it being chosen by a TV host and designer.

The Plot

The Birth House by Ami McKay is set in the early 1900s in rural Nova Scotia. McKay’s main character, Dora Rare, was a young woman born into a family of six brothers. Her birth was a miracle in her family – there hadn’t been a female in five generations born to Rares. As a young woman of fifteen, she begins training with the neighbourhood midwife. She learns Miss B’s trade, attending births and gaining a reputation among the women of the community as someone they can trust with their bodies and their babies.

Dora marries a local man, named Archer Bigelow. Archer Bigelow’s family has money, but he has no job. He is unloving and abusive, and forbids her from practicing midwifery. Archer often disappears for bouts of debauchery, depression and drunkenness. Dora however, believes that everything will be made right, if only she could conceive a child.  This never happens. As Archer becomes more despondent and distant, Dora becomes inspired by her friends to practice her trade of midwifery.

Dora runs into some professional discord with a Doctor of Obstetrics, from the next county,  who has opened up a modern Birth Centre with the most modern medical treatments.  Dr. Thomas struggles to gain business from traditional, rural women. He resorts to discrediting Dora’s ability and knowledge. She remains firm and convicted.

A pivotal moment in the book occurs when, one evening, an abused girl of thirteen shows up on Dora’s doorstep. She’s in labour, and abandoned by her family.  The young woman dies while giving birth, but the daughter is left in Dora’s care. She calls her Wrennie and raises her as a daughter. Archer (her husband) dies in an unfortunate sea accident, but his older, unattached brother Hart, steps up to the role of helping Dora with the house and the animals.

In the end, she is able to triumph over Dr. Thomas and the rumours of her witchery.   She practices being a midwife using the old traditional methods passed down to her from Miss B. Her house becomes a birth house, where women’s bodies are respected and cared for with love and compassion. She never remarries, but she does start a monogamous sexual relationship with Hart (her brother-in-law) and grows old and happy.

I read this book when I was pregnant with Elijah (2007), but I was interested in reading it again. It was a reprieve from the types of books I’ve read lately. The Birth House does not startle the reader with introspective character development and insight, the novel is driven almost solely by plot and interest.

I still enjoyed this book. It was light and fun. Light, because Dora Rare was not a strong character and hard to fall for.

It is my humble opinion that a woman in her place and historical time would not act the way Dora  acted. Ami MacKay certainly wanted to say something through Dora.  The theme of a woman’s rights to compassionate and intuitive care  – before, during, and after – the birth, were clear and legitimate. I believed in Dora’s cause, but I would have enjoyed this book more if it had presented her theme with tact and subtlety. This book doesn’t hint at something but rather screams it from the pages. I felt it was unrealistic that a young woman who grew up in the family she did would be able to train under a midwife;  her family was very traditional. Later, this liberal lapse in parenting is contradicted when her mother insists she marry Archer Bigelow. It was also unrealistic that this woman would take a lover (Hart), and be explicit and unashamed about it.

Dora seemed to express thoughts and feelings of a woman from the 21st Century, rather than the 20th. Something about the whole thing, just didn’t sit right with me.

Should you READ this book?

On a whole the book is a fun read. Especially for my peers, late twenties child rearing/bearing women. The desire to have respect, dignity and compassion is certainly something to fight for. We deserve it. The care I received through my Midwives for both the births of my children, is care like non other. I had never had such warm fuzzy feelings from the medical system before. I like this book because it celebrates that fact. I learned from McKay’s website that The Birth House is one of the 30th top selling novels of the last decade as reported in the Globe and Mail.  She also received a similar recognition from Chapters-Indigo.

Ami McKay is coming out with a new book soon. And, despite all my hard words I will likely read it! Here’s her website.


Salem, fresh born. We planned a home birth - but we had to do a hospital birth in the end.

a boy of good breeding, by Miriam Toews

Stealing a kiss from Elijah at Christie Lake, July 8, 2010.


  • females
  • someone who likes a quick easy read, but still with a bit of depth (perfect mid summer read)

The Book:

Has anyone ever read this book? It was published when I was fifteen. It’s a sparkly gem with a cute cover and it’s CanCon to boot.

I ate this book up. It’s fast, it’s heartfelt and aches in your mind when you aren’t devouring it. Oh, and it’s FUNNY (as other Toews books are). I laughed often at the pure silliness of the book, and frequently shared character antics with Alan.

A young mother, Knute, and her four-year old daughter named Summer Feelin’, return to their small hometown. Knute’s mother has asked them to help care for her ailing father. Except that this is a huge problem for the town’s mayor Hosea Funk. The mayor is intent on the town maintaining a constant population of 1500. No more, no less.

Hosea has a crazy scheme to win the title of the smallest town in Canada, which would merit a visit from the Prime Minister on Canada Day. It means his mayoral duties included moving the town limits to include/exclude people, or stressing over the sudden population increase of triplets, and convincing the town’s only doctor to set up practise elsewhere. He is so dedicated to his plan that he will not allow his girlfriend to move in from Winnipeg even though it is putting a strain on their relationship.

The father of Knute’s child returns, throwing the mayor’s numbers completely out of whack. I can’t really give many other details because Toews is good about hiding things until the end, sad or happy, and they make the book even more appetizing.

The book is goofy and the characters are ridiculous and unbelievable. Except that they are the people you know: your own father, your in-laws, the neighbours you understand and love but who are incredible quirky if you just think about it.

The book is at the same time heartbreaking. The characters are separated by misunderstandings. Toews shows that herein lies the meaning of life. It hides somewhere in being part of a togetherness with people that surround us and frustrate us, but also encourage us and give us purpose and a life to live.

I loved A Complicated Kindness which won the G.G. (Governor General’s) award in 2004; I’ve read it twice.  If you liked that book, this one will satisfy you too.

I read A Boy of Good Breeding the first week of July, and I loved that it coincided with the timing in the book. I felt the excitement of approaching summer and the undefinable moment you realize that spring is over simply because the entire world’s mood changes. The short spring (even shorter in Manitoba) has its subtle delights, like keeping your coat opened for the first time, and planting, and the smell of manure deep in your nose. Toews described the dawn of summer beautifully.

Also, the culmination of the book is Canada Day and it filled me with true patriotic love. It’s neat to read Canadian fiction.  It made it a perfect summer read.

Light, airy, and lovely. And a breath of fresh air after Wolf Hall, and our family being in between houses, and at the beginning of summer.

Miriam Toews, you made me smile and laugh.


Check in next week for a review on One Week Job by Sean Aiken. Great for anyone who wonders what they should do with their lives…. ( ie everyone).

Farm City, The Education of an Urban Farmer

I just finished an insightful book called Farm City, the Education of an Urban Farmer. I would love for someone else to pick it up and read it too.

Who would like it?

  • anyone with a mild interest in gardening
  • people interested in eating local would gain some new ideas and insight
  • someone who enjoys honest and humorous non-fiction.

The Book:

In Farm City, The Education of an Urban Farmer, the author Novella Carpenter introduces the reader to her “homestead”. This is a non-fiction account of Carpenter’s farm in Downtown Oakland, California. It sounds like a familiar place, a downtown with regular violent crimes, highways beside decaying and abandoned buildings and old homes turned into apartments with absentee landlords.

In an abdicated city lot, Carpenter raises beds for vegetables and fruit and builds pens for her animals. Animals? In the city? This eccentric and somewhat crazy woman actually tends livestock in downtown Oakland. This leads to wild tales of turkeys killed by junkyard dogs, hens clucking down sidewalks, and neighbours complaining about the smell of her pigs. Oh yeah, she has pigs…. which she feeds entirely by dumpster diving at local restaurants.

Carpenter’s passion is personal food production. She wants to know her food and be enriched by it.  Home grown food resonates with me too. I have slowly developed a unease with the grocery food business. Grocery stores provide us with necessities; but food comes to us with no endearment and at great environmental cost.

Homemade food thrills Carpenter, and she loves the value it holds.  Each spinach leaf tangibly represents weeks of work, sunshine and water.  She is so close to her food that on cold nights, her young poultry stay in her living room. And she still thought it was worthwhile, even when she had to gulp down (pun intended) all reserve and kill and roast her own rabbits.

She considers food production part of our cultural history. We have innate desires to “make” our own food. She claims this is our heritage, and I understand this. I still enjoy gardening, even though summers of my childhood included weeding. My grandmother, at 76, still puts up enough veggies for the winter. Carpenter thinks such good and perfect things need not be sacrificed for city life.

Carpenter vs. Kingsolver

I kept thinking of Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. A detailed memoir in which the privileged Kingsolver gives up an urbanunnatural” life in Arizona to live in a backwoods farm, committed to growing most of her own food.

Carpenter is very clear that city life is interesting, less isolating, and just as natural.  We don’t have to be hermits to be farmers. It made me feel proud to be city-folk, (even though I grew up in very rural Ontario). Conscientious food consumers don’t have to pine for the country. I still occasionally yearn for the idyllic country, but having lots of space is not the only way to solve the grocery store conundrum. It made me rethink preconceptions about farming and food production.

Despite her lofty ideals, Carpenter struck me as rounded and mature, brimming with empathy. One hot July day,  she witnessed a junkie shoot up from her window. Sitting there, watching him, she was struck with the shame of her so-called “foodie righteousness.”

She had considered herself better than people who ate carelessly and only knew how to use a microwave to reheat frozen dinners. There are more important things in life then what food she eats and where it comes from. There are bigger issues in this world. I liked that the best about this book; Carpenter was convicted but compassionate. There is nothing worse than a self-righteous eater, when basically we are all just trying to survive.

It would be hard to believe this woman’s story, but she writes with such authenticity.

I am new at this “urban gardening/ food production thing,” but I was inspired.  The book extrapolated very clearly that urban food production is not a new or radical idea. Cities like Shanghai, produce 85% of their own food within city limits, and have done so since the beginning of memory.

So we are giving it a go: my family and I have a tiny spot in a friend’s plot at the local Hill Street community garden. And things are growing. It will be a good bean year, and every time I go to see the garden I am thrilled.  I liken the feeling to watching my children smile. It’s mesmerizing, and the spinach and greens are tender and not even a bit bitter.

The humour in this book, her wry sarcasm and honesty (my favourite part was when she confessed to actually having a sizable grow op when she lived in Seattle), even her occasional F word slip, made me feel like we were close friends.

I was also encouraged because this book is about love.  It is about love for a city and community, and for nature that can coexist.  And it is about the good feelings that come from building up your neighbourhood. Even if it’s something as simple as sharing homegrown food.

Some thoughts?

Continue reading Farm City, The Education of an Urban Farmer