Midwives: A Novel

Paperback | November 8, 1998

byChris Bohjalian

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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.

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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 duri...

From the Publisher

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

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 hersel...

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 twe...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:384 pages, 7.98 × 5.12 × 0.82 inPublished:November 8, 1998Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0375706771

ISBN - 13:9780375706776

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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Midwives The “Swiss Cheese Model” of system failure states that every step in a process has the potential for failure, to varying degrees. The ideal system is analogous to a stack of slices of Swiss cheese. Consider the holes to be opportunities for a process to fail, and each of the slices as “defensive layers” in the process. An error may allow a problem to pass through a hole in one layer, but in the next layer the holes are in different places, and the problem should be caught. Each layer is a defence against potential error impacting the outcome. For a catastrophic error to occur, the holes need to align in each step of the process allowing all defences to be defeated and resulting in an error. Each slice of cheese is an opportunity to stop an error. The more defences you put up, the fewer the holes and the smaller the holes, the more likely you are to catch/stop errors that may occur. In 'Midwives', the layers were lined up with all the 'holes' in a row and Sybil Danforth, a lay midwife in rural Vermont in the early '80's finds herself on trial for manslaughter. This book refers to Sybil's personal diaries at the beginning of each chapter, but the story is told by her 14 year old daughter, Connie who provides her perspective on the trial, her mother's midwifery practice and the complex family relationships that are tested during a time of high stress. I first read this book almost twenty years ago and I remembering liking it. When I came across it again recently, I decided to give it another read and had forgotten how much I had liked it. This one will stay on my bookshelf.
Date published: 2016-05-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Full of tension and suspense. Hard to put down. 4.5 stars Sybil is a midwife and Connie's mom. The story is told from Connie's viewpoint. Connie is 14 years old when it happens. Sybil is helping a mom, Charlotte, in labour, but there is trouble, and Charlotte dies. Hoping to still save the baby, Sybil performs an emergency C-section on Charlotte. Unfortunately, there is now doubt as to whether or not Charlotte was actually dead before the C-section, or if that may have been what killed her. Sybil is charged, and brought to trial. I have to admit this book surprised me. I had no idea I would like it nearly as much as I did. I don't want kids, so the first couple of chapters may have been a bit too much info for me, with the detail about women giving birth, but once the story really got going... once the night of Charlotte's labour and death arrives, then the subsequent investigation and trial happens, wow! I just did not want to put the book down. If I wasn't reading the book, I wanted to be. The tension and suspense as to what would happen, who would say what, especially at the trial, was huge. Of course, being told from Connie's viewpoint, you see how this affects the entire family. But, it was really the tension and suspense in the book that really drew me in and wouldn't let go. This will most likely be on my favourites list for the year.
Date published: 2011-07-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Kept me guessing This was a good quick read that kept me guessing to the end. The narrator had an authentic voice; and I enjoyed the bits interspersed by the midwife on trial. I wasn't sure if she would be convicted or not, right until the end. Some interesting insight into the world of midwifery ~ and maybe a little too much information for the faint of heart ~ but a good read all the same. While I enjoyed this selection ~ I thought the Birth House (recommended below) was a more moving account of midwifery and if you had to choose, pick The Birth House.
Date published: 2011-05-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Intriguing! This book is about a midwife who goes to trial after one of her patients dies during childbirth. It presented very interesting moral and legal questions. Because I work in the legal field, I found this dilemma very interesting. The ending was a surprise to me (as mentioned by other reviewers). I would like to read this again sometime.
Date published: 2010-02-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Adored this book What a great read! I absolutely adored this book from the first page to the very last word. I ending was quite a surprise. I kept thinking about it days after I had finished reading it. It's a quick read but a very good one. Enjoy!
Date published: 2010-02-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enjoyable read In the middle of an ice storm in rural Vermont, Charlotte Bedford goes into labour with her trusted midwive, Sibyl Danforth at her side. After 10 hours of pushing, Charlotte is no further and Sibyl attempts to call an ambulance to take her to a hospital but the lines have been taken down by the ice storm. Taking Sibyl in her car also proves impossible with all the ice on the road. A few more hours of labour seems to cause Sibyl to stroke and no matter how much CPR Sibyl performs, she can't bring Charlotte back. Sibyl then focuses on saving the baby that is still alive within Charlotte. As soon as the roads clear and the medics come out to Charlotte's house, it's clear the Sibyl requires a lawyer. The police seem to think that Sibyl caused Charlotte's death. Told partially from Sibyl's journal and mostly from her daughter's perspective, this book shows how a family strains under the weight of a criminal trial for something that isn't 100% clear. This book was very easy to get into and it was easy to relate to Connie, Sibyl's daughter. I didn't find this to be a typical Oprah book, which usually I find to be about woman who have been done wrong by men. In this case, it's a very fuzzy line between right and wrong. An interesting moral question is presented to the reader and I'm sure each person reading has a different opinion about how the trial will end. The ending to the book provided a perfect final touch. A great Oprah read!
Date published: 2009-09-04
Rated 3 out of 5 by from So-So I did enjoy this book, the only thing that bothered me was that they jumped around a lot. It would go from past to present then back, for one event to the next and back and found the ending very predictable. It was a good read, and I would recommend it, but thats my only complaint.
Date published: 2006-11-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful, spellbinding.. I absolutly loved this book. It was a bit slow to start, but as it progressed, it totally drew me in. A touching story with believeable characters that your heart goes out to. A dramatic tale of how one nights' events totally changed a whole family forever.
Date published: 2006-07-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great, easy read I thought this was a great, easy read. Definitely a page turner.
Date published: 2005-11-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Novel ! This novel was light and easy to read. A definite page turner.
Date published: 2005-04-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from It was a dark and stormy night... This book revolves around the life of Sybil Danforth who is a midwife in Vermont. On a stormy night she is called to deliver Charlotte Bedford's baby. It is a night that will forever change the lives of Sybil and her family because she is charged with involuntary manslaughter. The story of this event, its aftermath and the impact it makes on so many lives is told through the eyes of Sybil's daughter and through the pages of Sybil's journal. I found the story to be incredibly well written and suspenseful. I liked the last line of the book...it indeed makes you think.
Date published: 2001-05-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wow! My English teacher had asked me to look for some books to add to a reading list at my high school, and this was one of the books that I had found. She asked me to read it, and I have to say it was incredible. At the beginning, I was having sympathy pains as Charlotte was trying to have her baby; I felt for Sibyl during the trial. This is an excellent book. I literally couldn't put it down!
Date published: 2001-02-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from couldn't put it down..... Although the author was a man, I found his ability to see this through the eyes of a woman impressive. I enjoyed the way the story was narrated by the midwives' daughter. Also the loyalty of the daughter to her mother (even when she knew the truth) gave me goosebumps. I thought it was a terrific book with a great twist at the end.
Date published: 2000-09-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Midwives An interesting book - interesting issue. I liked the fact that the story was recounted by the daughter. While I sympathized with Sibyl, I am skeptical about her innocence. I am a mother, but also a nursing student. I support a woman's choice around birthing, but only within the confines of safety. It seems to me that Sibyl's lack of knowledge caused Charlotte's death.
Date published: 2000-04-17
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Tragic I found it heartbreaking beacause nobody recognized The midwife's love of doing her job
Date published: 1999-10-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Midwives I really enjoyed this book. I especially liked the fact that it was written from the daughter's perspective, I felt this added another dimension to the big picture. As someone employed in the legal community, I related to the battle Sybil was fighting on a personal level. I also strongly believe in a woman's right to choose home birth or hospital birth, as long as her choice is an informed one. I would recommend this book to just about anyone, and in fact have.
Date published: 1999-09-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Midwives Although I personally am totally pro-hospital births, I do support a woman's decision to give birth at home, but I am not a big fan of midwives. I was however, a fan of Sybil Danfarth, the midwife in this novel. I went through most of the book with complete faith in her, wishing that she had been present at the births of my children. I rooted for her to win her court case, and wanted her to go back to practicing midwifery. After supporting her for 370 pages, the end of this novel was a massive letdown for me, even though I suspected what would happen. This is still a good book and I would recommend it - but if you're expecting a child, avoid it until after you have given birth.
Date published: 1999-06-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Midwives An engaging, Oprah-recommended novel about the controversial murder trial of a midwife whose patient dies during childbirth, as told through the midwife's diaries, and by her daughter. The story is drawn out, and the writing flat at times, but the trial is suspenseful with a few good twists. Although the subject matter is typically a female domain, the story might also appeal to male readers, because it is a legal drama, and the author is a man.
Date published: 1999-03-19

Extra Content

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 months surrounding the trial I became especially fanatic. I monitored their fights, and noted how the arguments grew nasty fast under pressure; I listened to them apologize, one of them often sobbing, and then I'd wait for the more muffled (but still decipherable) sounds they would make when they would climb into bed and make love. I caught the gist of their debates with doctors and lawyers, I understood why some witnesses would be more damning than others, I learned to hate people I'd never met and whose faces I'd never seen. The state's medical examiner. The state's attorney. An apparently expert midwife from Washington, D.C.The morning the judge gave the jury its instructions and sent them away to decide my mother's fate, I overheard her attorney explain to my parents what he said was one of the great myths in litigation: You can tell what a jury has decided the moment they reenter the courtroom after their deliberations, by the way they look at the defendant. Or refuse to look at him. But don't believe it, he told them. It's just a myth.I was fourteen years old that fall, however, and it sounded like more than a myth to me. It had that ring of truth to it that I heard in many wives'--and midwives'--tales, a core of common sense hardened firm by centuries of observation. Babies come when the moon is full. If the boiled potatoes burn, it'll rain before dark. A bushy caterpillar's a sign of a cold winter. Don't ever sugar till the river runs free.My mother's attorney may not have believed the myth that he shared with my parents, but I sure did. It made sense to me. I had heard much over the past six months. I'd learned well which myths to take to my heart and which ones to discard.And so when the jury filed into the courtroom, an apostolic procession of twelve, I studied their eyes. I watched to see whether they would look at my mother or whether they would look away. Sitting beside my father in the first row, sitting directly behind my mother and her attorney as I had every day for two weeks, I began to pray to myself, Please don't look at your shoes, please don't look at the judge. Don't look down or up or out the window. Please, please, look at me, look at my mother. Look at us, look here, look here, look here.I'd watched the jurors for days, I'd seen them watch me. I'd counted beards, I'd noted wrinkles, I'd stared beyond reason and courtesy at the way the fellow who would become the foreman had sat with his arms folded across his chest, hiding the hand disfigured years earlier by a chain saw. He had a thumb but no fingers.They walked in from the room adjacent to their twelve chairs and found their seats. Some of the women crossed their legs at their knees, one of the men rubbed his eyes and rocked his chair back for a brief second on its rear legs. Some scanned the far wall of the courtroom, some looked toward the exit sign above the front door as if they realized their ordeal was almost over and emancipation was at hand.One, the elderly woman with white hair and a closet full of absolutely beautiful red flowered dresses, the woman who I was sure was a Lipponcott from Craftsbury, looked toward the table behind which the state's attorney and his deputy were sitting.And that's when I broke down. I tried not to, but I could feel my eyes fill with tears, I could feel my shoulders beginning to quiver. I blinked, but a fourteen-year-old girl's eyelids are no match for the lament I had welling inside me. My cries were quiet at first, the sound of a mournful whisper, but they gathered fury fast. I have been told that I howled.And while I am not proud of whatever hysteria I succumbed to that day in the courtroom, I am not ashamed of it either. If anyone should feel shame for whatever occurred that moment in a small courthouse in northeastern Vermont, in my mind it is the jury: Amidst my sobs and wails, people have said that I pleaded aloud, "Look at us! Oh, God, please, please look at us!" and still not one of the jurors would even glance in my mother's or my direction.

Bookclub Guide

US1. 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?

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.