The Midwife – Gay Courter

The Midwife ALBA historical novel about a young Jewish midwife in turn-of-the-century Russia and New York. 1981.

Recently, I became aware that the 1980s has a reputation for producing lots of chunky historical sagas, the majority of which have become lost in the crowded annals of contemporary fiction. All I know is that after I finished The Passing Bells, I was definitely in the mood for another deeply satisfying historical saga.

Even without this craving, The Midwife is hard to resist. As I quickly got sucked into the story—-mind, body, and soul—-I realized that this book contains all of the elements stellar historical fiction needs.

What are these elements? Well, I’m glad you asked, because as I was reading I made a list:

  1. Obviously, it tells an engaging story.
  2. It teaches you something new about history, or simply about life.
  3. It possesses a larger-than-life quality. It might tell a story about a community, a family, or simply follow an individual over several years. Regardless of the scope, you are left with the distinct impression that this story needed to be told—-and that you are the richer for having read it.

Considering that The Midwife is about 560 pages and I read it in three days, I think it’s safe to say #1 on the list was fulfilled.

Now, what did I learn by reading The Midwife? More than I could possibly list in a review. The story opens in Moscow, with a young woman named Hannah Blau, who is in the final year of her training to be a licensed midwife. The very first scene of the novel shows her first solo delivery: an aristocratic woman whose husband is a politician of some significance…oh yes, and the woman has yet to deliver a healthy child! To complicate matters, as the labor progresses Hannah realizes that something is wrong. (The baby is transverse positioned.) Rather than bailing out and fetching a doctor, who’s authorized to use those scary, damaging forceps, Hannah continues with the birth, convinced that she can deliver this baby on her own, allowing the mother-to-be a less stressful, less damaging birthing experience.

And she does it! But of course it wouldn’t set up a very good story if she weren’t good at what she does. After this successful birth, Hannah gains the respect of her colleagues and instructors, who disdain her by default because she is Jewish, one of the few Jews in the program, where admission is regulated by very strict quotas. She’s so competent as a midwife, however, that her professors, particularly a female doctor/teacher (also Jewish), encourage her to go a step further and get the training to become a full-fledged doctor. Hannah is flattered but also unsure, as her true passion is simply to be a midwife.

The MidwifeAfter becoming a certified midwife, Hannah is called home to Odessa (now in the Ukraine, then in Russia), where there’s a family emergency. She leaves Moscow and the medical school knowing she will never return, since 1) her family evidently needs her and 2) new laws are making it harder for Jews to travel around Russia.

En route to Odessa, Hannah gets a more complete picture of the worsening conditions for Jews. An old Jewish man is beat to death for sport in a fourth class railway car. Hannah witnesses this because, once her papers are inspected, she is thrown out of first class and dragged back into fourth class, where she is also molested. In Odessa, Hannah and her family experience brutal pogroms, where entire Jewish neighborhoods are destroyed, friends and family murdered.

When a doctor/instructor from her Moscow school seeks her out in Odessa, Hannah’s path suddenly has a fork in it. Should she marry this man (a Gentile), go back to Moscow and live in upper-class luxury, estranged from her family and community? Then there’s this young man she grew up with, who trained to be a Jewish scholar but now only cares about politics. Hannah’s always been drawn to him, but he seems to be more interested in socialism (you know, back when it was a fresh, untested idea) than interested in starting a life with her.

Well, this was only the first half of the book, and the second half takes place in New York, so I think you can guess which man and which path she chooses. In New York, we witness Hannah and her family pass through Ellis Island and eek out the meager living typical of European immigrants at the time, making pitiful factory wages and struggling not to starve.

Even in the midst of this hand-to-mouth existence, Hannah hears the calling of midwifery. I absolutely loved reading about the births she attended—-with the exception of one. The Midwife, while not being excessively an gruesome book, does deal with some difficult issues. For one, there’s the persecution of Jews, especially through those pogroms. Then there’s the difficult ocean crossing in steerage, and the inspection upon arriving at Ellis Island. At times, it was even challenging to read about the squalor of the immigrant-filled apartments in New York.

What took the cake, though, for being difficult to digest as a reader, was when circumstances forced Hannah to give birth to her first child in a hospital, rather than being gently cared for by a fellow midwife. The descriptions of how they caustically sterilize everything about her, strap her down to a bare metal slab, don’t bother trying to communicate with her, and, lastly, aggressively use forceps to pull the baby out of her, bruising the baby’s skull and tearing her delicate tissues…Well, that scene left me quite indignant!

Whenever I read outstanding historical fiction, I always wonder: why didn’t my teachers have me read this in school, rather than some dry history textbook that I probably didn’t even read? Historical fiction might fudge or abridge the facts, but it provides a deeper context—-an emotional context—-that makes the time and place feel a thousand times more real.

And The Midwife is so real, it eats you up. I was only too happy to be consumed. Every day since I’ve finished reading it, I wake up hoping today will be the day my hold comes in for the sequel. That’s the strong advantage of reading older books: I only have to wait a few days before starting the sequel! Considering that The Midwife’s Advice was published ELEVEN years after the The Midwife…Well, I suppose a few days’ wait is nothing to complain about.

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