Midwives: A Novel

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Midwives: A Novel

by Chris Bohjalian

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group | November 8, 1998 | Trade Paperback

3.8824 out of 5 rating. 17 Reviews
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"Superbly crafted and astonishingly powerful. . . . It will thrill readers who cherish their worn copies of To Kill A Mockingbird." --People

With a suspense, lyricism, and moral complexity that recall To Kill a Mockingbird and Presumed Innocent, this compulsively readable novel explores what happens when a woman who has devoted herself to ushering life into the world finds herself charged with responsibility in a patient''s tragic death.

The time is 1981, and Sibyl Danforth has been a dedicated midwife in the rural community of Reddington, Vermont, for fifteen years. But one treacherous winter night, in a house isolated by icy roads and failed telephone lines, Sibyl takes desperate measures to save a baby''s life. She performs an emergency Caesarean section on its mother, who appears to have died in labor. But what if--as Sibyl''s assistant later charges--the patient wasn''t already dead, and it was Sibyl who inadvertently killed her?

As recounted by Sibyl''s precocious fourteen-year-old daughter, Connie, the ensuing trial bears the earmarks of a witch hunt except for the fact that all its participants are acting from the highest motives--and the defendant increasingly appears to be guilty. As Sibyl Danforth faces the antagonism of the law, the hostility of traditional doctors, and the accusations of her own conscience, Midwives engages, moves, and transfixes us as only the very best novels ever do.

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 384 pages, 3.15 × 2.05 × 0.3 in

Published: November 8, 1998

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0375706771

ISBN - 13: 9780375706776

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– More About This Product –

Midwives: A Novel

by Chris Bohjalian

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 384 pages, 3.15 × 2.05 × 0.3 in

Published: November 8, 1998

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0375706771

ISBN - 13: 9780375706776

Read from the Book

Throughout the long summer before my mother''s trial began, and then during those crisp days in the fall when her life was paraded publicly before the county--her character lynched, her wisdom impugned--I overheard much more than my parents realized, and I understood more than they would have liked. Through the register in the floor of my bedroom I could listen to the discussions my parents would have with my mother''s attorney in the den late at night, after the adults had assumed I''d been sleeping for hours. If the three of them happened to be in the suite off the kitchen my mother used as her office and examining room, perhaps searching for an old document in her records or a patient''s prenatal history, I would lie on the bathroom floor above them and listen as their words traveled up to me through the holes that had been cut for the water pipes to the sink. And while I never went so far as to lift the receiver of an upstairs telephone when I heard my mother speaking on the kitchen extension, often I stepped silently down the stairs until I could hear every word that she said. I must have listened to dozens of phone conversations this way--standing completely still on the bottom step, invisible from the kitchen because the phone cord stretched barely six feet--and by the time the trial began, I believe I could have reconstructed almost exactly what the lawyer, friend, or midwife was saying at the other end of the line. I was always an avid parent watcher, but in those mo
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From the Publisher

"Superbly crafted and astonishingly powerful. . . . It will thrill readers who cherish their worn copies of To Kill A Mockingbird." --People

With a suspense, lyricism, and moral complexity that recall To Kill a Mockingbird and Presumed Innocent, this compulsively readable novel explores what happens when a woman who has devoted herself to ushering life into the world finds herself charged with responsibility in a patient''s tragic death.

The time is 1981, and Sibyl Danforth has been a dedicated midwife in the rural community of Reddington, Vermont, for fifteen years. But one treacherous winter night, in a house isolated by icy roads and failed telephone lines, Sibyl takes desperate measures to save a baby''s life. She performs an emergency Caesarean section on its mother, who appears to have died in labor. But what if--as Sibyl''s assistant later charges--the patient wasn''t already dead, and it was Sibyl who inadvertently killed her?

As recounted by Sibyl''s precocious fourteen-year-old daughter, Connie, the ensuing trial bears the earmarks of a witch hunt except for the fact that all its participants are acting from the highest motives--and the defendant increasingly appears to be guilty. As Sibyl Danforth faces the antagonism of the law, the hostility of traditional doctors, and the accusations of her own conscience, Midwives engages, moves, and transfixes us as only the very best novels ever do.

From the Jacket

"Superbly crafted and astonishingly powerful. . . . It will thrill readers who cherish their worn copies of "To Kill A Mockingbird." --People
With a suspense, lyricism, and moral complexity that recall To Kill a Mockingbird and Presumed Innocent, this compulsively readable novel explores what happens when a woman who has devoted herself to ushering life into the world finds herself charged with responsibility in a patient''s tragic death.
The time is 1981, and Sibyl Danforth has been a dedicated midwife in the rural community of Reddington, Vermont, for fifteen years. But one treacherous winter night, in a house isolated by icy roads and failed telephone lines, Sibyl takes desperate measures to save a baby''s life. She performs an emergency Caesarean section on its mother, who appears to have died in labor. But what if--as Sibyl''s assistant later charges--the patient wasn''t already dead, and it was Sibyl who inadvertently killed her?
As recounted by Sibyl''s precocious fourteen-year-old daughter, Connie, the ensuing trial bears the earmarks of a witch hunt except for the fact that all its participants are acting from the highest motives--and the defendant increasingly appears to be guilty. As Sibyl Danforth faces the antagonism of the law, the hostility of traditional doctors, and the accusations of her own conscience, Midwives engages, moves, and transfixes us as only the very best novels ever do.

About the Author

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eight novels, including Midwives, (a # 1 New York Times bestseller and an Oprah's Book Club® selection), Trans-Sister Radio, and The Buffalo Soldier-as well as Idyll Banter, a collection of magazine essays and newspaper columns.

His work has been translated into seventeen languages, been published in twenty countries, and twice become acclaimed movies, ("Midwives" and "Past the Bleachers").  In 2002 and he won the New England Book Award.

From Our Editors

In idyllic Reddington, Vt., during the harsh winter of 1981, Sibyl Danforth makes a life-and-death decision based on 15 years' experience as a trusted midwife. Late on a frigid night, cut off from the hospital by a storm that has made the roads impassable, Sibyl attempts to save the baby of a woman she fears has died from a stroke during labour. Later, the midwife's assistant tells the police she's certain the mother was still alive when the Caesarean section was performed in the isolated farmhouse. In Midwives, Sibyl's daughter, Connie, narrates the aftermath of this tragedy. Now an obstetrician, she recalls the events of her 14th year, when her mother's freedom and her family's fate rested with 12 men and women. Chris Bohjalian captures the human scale of misfortune with this moving novel.

Bookclub Guide

US

1. By the time Sibyl was of college age, her daughter says, "She had already developed what was then a popular distaste for most traditional or institutional authority" [p. 31]. How does Sibyl continue to maintain an "anti-establishment" stance throughout her life? How does the legacy of the sixties continue to shape the lives, and the self-images, of Sibyl, Rand, and Stephen?

2. "My mother never came quickly or lightly to the decision that one of her patients should go to a hospital" [p. 62]. Why not? What does the act of home birth symbolize for Sibyl, her patients, and the other midwives?

3. Does Anne Austin do the right thing by calling Dr. Hewitt, or does she act out of hostility towards Sibyl? Why doesn''t she call Sibyl before talking to the doctor? Should she have done so?

4. Sibyl notes that bankers, lawyers, doctors, and architects choose to have babies at the hospital rather than at home. What point is she trying to make?

5. Tom compares doctors with "pack animals" [p. 95]. Stephen, at the trial, says, "The whole idea that a midwife can do what they do--and do it better--drives some of them crazy, and so they''re persecuting my client" [p. 232]. Are these accusations fair, or unfair, to doctors?

6. After Charlotte''s death, Tom says to Connie, "So, they''re going to have to blame someone" [p. 101]. Do you think this is true? Is Sibyl blamed because people must blame someone? Should someone be held accountable for every death of this sort, or can some be simply attributed to tragic accident?

7. Sibyl carries Pitocin and Ergotrate in case of emergencies during labor. For a lay practitioner to do so is illegal, "but," as Connie states, "every midwife carried them. My mother wasn''t unique" [p. 64]. How does this affect midwifery''s position as a natural way of delivery? Does the fact that every midwife does so make it all right, or should use of these drugs be limited, as the law prescribes, to licensed doctors and nurses?

8. How alike, basically, are Rand and Sibyl? Has Rand changed more or less than Sibyl from their hippie days? How compatible is he with Sibyl and what she stands for? Do you see their marriage as essentially happy?

9. Do you think that the relationship that develops between Sibyl and Stephen is simply a flirtation, or is it more than a flirtation? What role do Rand''s behavior and attitude during the trial play in fostering this relationship?

10. Some of the male and female reporters who cover Sibyl''s trial try to avert their eyes from the breasts of the many nursing mothers in the courtroom [p. 213]. Does this reflect to you an essential discomfort with the human body in our culture? Might such a discomfort explain society''s disapproval of people like Sibyl Danforth?

11. In the final analysis, do you think that Sibyl behaves irresponsibly during Veil Bedford''s birth? Should she, as the prosecution claims, have been more alert to potential weather problems and to Charlotte''s health history? Is she precipitate in performing the cesarean section without checking Charlotte''s life signs a final time after Asa and Anne returned with the knife, or is it imperative that she rush in order to save the child''s life?

12. Do you believe that Connie makes the right choice in shielding her mother from the law? "My mother''s conviction would not bring back Charlotte Bedford. It would merely destroy a second woman," Connie reflects [p. 295]. What about the principle involved? Should Sibyl in fact have been allowed to continue to practice as a midwife?

13. "My choice of profession was neither an indictment of my mother''s profession nor a slap at her persecutors," says Connie [p. 143]. Is this true? What does Connie mean when she says that "atonement," "reparation," "compensation," and "justice" entered into her decision to become an obstetrician [p. 303]?

14. Did Sibyl''s final diary entry [pp. 309-310] change any of the opinions you formed during the course of reading about the trial? If you had any firm ideas about home versus hospital birth, have they been changed by reading this book? Do you think that lay midwives should be allowed to practice? Would you trust yourself to the care of a midwife, or would you go to a hospital for delivery by a doctor?

15. Connie quotes physicians as saying: "But we''ve lost our collective memory of the fact that although labor is natural, it''s dangerous. Let''s face it, there was a time when women and babies died all the time in labor. . . . A hospital is like an infant car seat: If something unexpected should occur and there''s some kind of collision, we have the tools to pull the baby out of the oven" [p. 18]. The midwives argue: "What''s the price of attempting to eliminate chance, or trying to better the odds? A sterile little world with bright hospital lights?" [p. 123]. By which of the two points of view do you find yourself persuaded?

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