The Birth House

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The Birth House

by Ami Mckay

Knopf Canada | March 6, 2007 | Trade Paperback

4.4835 out of 5 rating. 91 Reviews
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The Birth House is the story of Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born in five generations of Rares. As a child in an isolated village in Nova Scotia, she is drawn to Miss Babineau, an outspoken Acadian midwife with a gift for healing. Dora becomes Miss B.'s apprentice, and together they help the women of Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labours, breech births, unwanted pregnancies and even unfulfilling sex lives. Filled with details as compelling as they are surprising, The Birth House is an unforgettable tale of the struggles women have faced to have control of their own bodies and to keep the best parts of tradition alive in the world of modern medicine.


From the Hardcover edition.

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 408 pages, 8 × 5.34 × 1.02 in

Published: March 6, 2007

Publisher: Knopf Canada

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0676977731

ISBN - 13: 9780676977738

The Birth House will draw you in to a time and place now long forgotten. Set in a small, isolated fishing village in Nova Scotia in the early 1900's, The Birth House is the story of Dora Rare, the first daughter in five generations of Rares. Dora is drawn early in life to become an apprentice to the town's respected and cherished mid-wife, Miss Babineau. It is Dora's destiny to take over for Miss Babineau when the old woman dies, but not before Miss Babineau has taught her all that she knows about the process of birthing, including traditions passed on from the natives who came before her. We learn of everything important that happens in the town through the tales of the mothers who pass through Dora's birthing house: the fancies of young couples, the broken dreams, the marriages and sex lives of women, even Dora's own ill-fated romance. And amidst all this is the arrival of a new doctor in town – an obstetrician set on educating the town on the advantages of hospital births and their clinical, sterile, "new age" environments. Dora's position is challenged and she is up to the challenge. This book, by first-time author Ami McKay, is a read to savour. Beautifully written, unique in voice, and passionate.

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– More About This Product –

The Birth House

by Ami Mckay

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 408 pages, 8 × 5.34 × 1.02 in

Published: March 6, 2007

Publisher: Knopf Canada

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0676977731

ISBN - 13: 9780676977738

Read from the Book

Prologue My house stands at the edge of the earth. Together, the house and I have held strong against the churning tides of Fundy. Two sisters, stubborn in our bones. My father, Judah Rare, built this farmhouse in 1917. It was my wedding gift. A strong house for a Rare woman , he said. I was eighteen. He and his five brothers, shipbuilders by trade, raised her worthy from timbers born on my grand­father’s land. Oak for stability and certainty, yellow birch for new life and change, spruce for protection from the world outside. Father was an intuitive carpenter, carrying out his work like holy ritual. His callused hands, veined with pride, had a memory for measure and a knowing of what it takes to withstand the sea. Strength and a sense of knowing, that’s what you have to have to live in the Bay. Each morning you set your sights on the tasks ahead and hope that when the day is done you’re farther along than when you started. Our little village, perched on the crook of God’s finger, has always been ruled by storm and season. The men did whatever they had to do to get by. They joked with one another in fire-warmed kitchens after sunset, smoking their pipes, someone bringing out a fiddle . . . laughing as they chorused, no matter how rough, we can take it . The seasons were reflected in their faces, and in the movement of their bodies. When it was time for the shad, herring and cod to come in, they were fishermen, dark with tiresome wet from the sea. W
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From the Publisher

The Birth House is the story of Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born in five generations of Rares. As a child in an isolated village in Nova Scotia, she is drawn to Miss Babineau, an outspoken Acadian midwife with a gift for healing. Dora becomes Miss B.'s apprentice, and together they help the women of Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labours, breech births, unwanted pregnancies and even unfulfilling sex lives. Filled with details as compelling as they are surprising, The Birth House is an unforgettable tale of the struggles women have faced to have control of their own bodies and to keep the best parts of tradition alive in the world of modern medicine.


From the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Ami McKay''s work has aired on CBC radio''s Maritime Magazine, This Morning, OutFront, and The Sunday Edition. Her documentary, Daughter of Family G, won an Excellence in Journalism Meallion at the 2003 Atlantic Journalism Awarsd. When she moved with her family to Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, she learned that their new home was once known as the birth house.


From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

" The Birth House is a poignant, compassionate, bittersweet and nostalgic look at early 20th-century Nova Scotia…. Reading McKay’s novel is like dipping into a saner, more intimate, past; a past that’s long gone…. McKay is not only a new author to note, but one to look forward to with anticipation." — National Post "From the beginning of Ami McKay’s debut novel, The Birth House , we know we’re in for a bit of magic…. The Birth House is compelling and lively, beautifully conjuring a close-knit community and reminding us, as Dora notes, that the miracle happens not in birth but in the love that follows." — The Globe and Mail " The Birth House is filled with charming detail.… McKay has a quiet and lyrical style that suits her subject.… [It is] a story of individual human tenderness and endurance…. McKay is clearly a talented writer with a subtle sense of story, one that readers will look forward to hearing from, again and again." — The Gazette (Montreal) "She’s dug deep into Maritime history to tell a story that rips right along…. You can tell that McKay’s got the goods." — NOW (Toronto) " The Birth House is bound to be one of the most read novels of 2006…. Authentic, gripping and totally compassionate … The Birth House will be there next fall when they hand out the literary nominations." — The Sun Times (Owen S
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Bookclub Guide

1. Early in the novel, Dora's Aunt Fran quotes from The Science of a New Life: "It is almost impossible for a woman to read the current ''love and murder'' literature of the day and have pure thoughts, and when the reading of such literature is associated with idleness - as it almost invariably is - a woman's thoughts and feelings cannot be other than impure and sensual." How does reading shape Dora's view of the world? How does her love of books play into her relationship with her father? With Miss B.? With Archer?

2. Dora makes the following observation after attending her first birth: "How a mother comes to love her child, her caring at all for this thing that's made her heavy, lopsided and slow, this thing that made her wish she were dead … that's the miracle." What do you think she meant? Do you feel this is true?

3. Folklore, home remedies, women's traditions, herbalism, and a belief in the divine feminine are all part of Miss B.'s way of life. She is determined to pass these things along to Dora. Does Dora try hard enough to preserve them? Should she let them go? In your own life, what traditions matter most to you (and why)?

4. According to medical texts and advertisements of the early 1900's, women who were prone to "emotional behaviour" were often labeled as hysterical. A poster in Dr. Thomas''s office reads:

Feeling Anxious? Tired? Weepy? You are not alone. The modernization of society has brought about an increase in neurasthenia, greensickness and hysteria. Symptoms of Neurasthenia include: Weeping, melancholy, anxiety, irritability, depression, outrageousness, insomnia, mental and physical weariness, idle talking, sudden fevers, morbid fears, frequent titillation, forgetfulness, palpitations of the heart, headaches, writing cramps, mental confusion, constant worry and fear of impending insanity. Talk to your physician. He can help.

Do we see this kind of questioning today?
Are women''s emotions still targeted by advertisers?

5. When Archer asks Dora to marry him, he tells her that "love takes care of herself." Dora chooses to say yes. What does Dora's decision say about her situation and station in life? Do you think she should have chosen to follow in Miss B.''s footsteps instead?

6. Through a visit to Dr. Thomas's office, Dora discovers that women's sexual pleasure (specifically orgasm) is considered to be a medical function (or dysfunction). Ads of the time, such as the one for the White Cross Vibrator, reinforced this notion. How does Dora come to terms with these ideas? What kinds of taboos, if any, surround women's sexuality today?

7. Miss B. says this about Mabel's home birth: "The scent of a good groanin' cake, a cuppa hot Mother's Tea and time. Most times that's all a mama needs on the day her baby comes." She later says this to Dr. Thomas: "Science don't know kindness. It don't know kindness from cabbage." Dr. Thomas replies, "Science is neither kind nor unkind, Miss Babineau. Science is exact." How do these statements show the differences between Miss B. and Dr. Thomas? In moving the birthing experience from homes and birth houses to hospitals, what have women lost? What have they gained?

8. After Dora discovers Aunt Fran's affair with Reverend Norton, she writes: "He's been seeing her. He''s noticed her so much that now she''s his." Why do you think Dora decided to keep it a secret? Should she have told someone? What would you have done?

9. Dora says this about her mother: "Everything I've learned from Mother, every bit of her truth, has been said while her hands were moving." What does this say about her relationship with her mother? Is this kind of communication still an important part of women's lives?

10. The author includes ephemera from Dora''s life (invitations, news articles, sections from The Willow Book, folk tales, advertisements, etc.) throughout the novel. How did this affect your reading experience? Do you have a favourite from them?

11. There are many mentions of birthing folklore and techniques, from groaning cake to mother''s tea, from Miss B. turning Ginny''s breech baby to quilling. What wives'' tales about pregnancy and birth have you heard? Are there any that you''d swear by?

12. The sisters of the Occasional Knitters Society support Dora throughout the book (keeping the secret of Wrennie''s birth, taking care of Wrennie when Dora goes to Boston, meeting together for conversations and sisterhood). What makes their friendship so strong? Do you think friendships like that are still possible today?

13. Mrs. Ketch comes to her house for help, Dora feels conflicted. Given Dora''s history with Mrs. Ketch, why do you think she chose to assist her in helping her "lose" her baby?

14. Maxine is unlike anyone Dora has ever met before. Boston is very different from Scots Bay. What do Maxine and Boston bring to Dora''s life? Have you ever made a change in location or met someone who immediately changed your life?

15. In both the prologue and the epilogue, we see how, over time, life has changed in Scots Bay. Other towns in other places have changed too - some have disappeared forever. What do you think we have gained with these changes? What have we lost?

16. After Dora and Hart become lovers, he talks of marriage and she refuses. Why do you think she is so determined not to marry him?

17. In the epilogue, Dora reflects on her past and what the birth house has meant to her and to the community. There is a sense of change, but also a sense of traditions preserved and lessons learned. What thoughts will you take away from The Birth House?

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