03 January 2011

Canada Reads...The Birth House!

Welcome to 2011, everyone! I hope you've had a great New Year's and Christmas holiday and are settling back into the regular routines of your week.

As I mentioned in my last post, there are going to be a few changes to Bloomingwriter in the coming weeks, especially as the end of this month will mark 5 years of me bathering on here. One of the changes I have been sort-of implementing of late is the publishing of book reviews and author interviews. Although these will mostly be of books pertaining to gardening, botany, and such, I also plan to drop in the occasional review of a favourite fiction book, and a talk with its author.

CBC Radio has a program on each winter called Canada Reads, where five 'celebrity judges' debate the merits of five recent works of Canadian fiction. The show will run in early February, but there's been a lot of hype and chatter in recent weeks and days. This year marks ten years of the show, and the books were selected from works published in the past ten years. To my great delight, one of the books in the top five is The Birth House, by Scotts Bay resident Ami McKay! This is one of my favourite novels of all time, and not just because it's by a writer who is a friend and is set in my community. It simply reads like a dream. Chapters/Indigo included it as one of their best books of the decade, and it's been published in numerous other countries, including the USA, Great Britain, Germany and the Netherlands.

The Birth House tells the story of young Dora Rare, only daughter in a family of seven children, and her development into the apprentice, and ultimately the successor of the community’s midwife, the Acadian wise woman Marie Babineau.

Set at a time when so-called modern medicine had some less than modern ideas about women’s health and wellbeing, and limned by the war in Europe and of the Halifax explosion at home, The Birth House is a lyrical and provoking exploration, written with courage and tenderness. It's one of those novels that you can read over and over again, and gain something more from it with each reading.

It’s a long way from either the corn belt of Indiana where McKay was born and raised or the bustling pace of downtown Chicago to a rural Nova Scotian community of some 150 people. But Scots Bay has become the place that Ami McKay wants to live for the rest of her days, with her husband Ian and sons Ian and Jonah. So much does she love her community, that when she began writing her novel, she never considered changing its name or setting her book elsewhere. The Birth House even mentions our famous landmark, Cape Split, and the mighty riptides that roar around it twice daily in what some call 'the voice of the moon.'

Writers draw inspiration for their works from any number of people, events, or locations. In McKay’s case, her journey from private writer to published author began before she moved to the house that inspired her novel.

Like many of us, Ami had kept journals, written poetry and short stories since she had been a child, but “had kept them secret forever.” In 2000, after a series of life events led her from Chicago to Nova Scotia to marry a longtime friend, she decided to write a note to the Oprah Winfrey show, about a book she had read while recovering from a terrible car accident several years earlier. This note led to an appearance on the Oprah show, focusing on when bad things happened to good people.

“I learned from that accident that you can’t just put things off; you’ve got to do it now because you probably won’t do it next week or next year. So I walked away from that experience determined to devote myself to my writing. I knew that I needed to get out and tell stories in my own way.” 

Having recognized, through support by friends and family and positive responses to her writing, that she needed and wanted to be doing more, she felt drawn to the story of Mrs. Rebecca Steele, a longago former midwife who had lived in the house where Ami and her family now make their home, and wondered more about her story and the stories of women in small rural communities in the early part of the twentieth century.

“There’s a modest history of Scots Bay, written by a Mr. Jess,” she says, “which talks about the things men were interested in at the time. But there’s very little recorded in that book about women’s interests, cares, concerns. How did they manage in such isolated communities? How did they care for each other, look out for their health? I felt that the women’s’ voices were unheard.” 

Initially, driven by her interest in the former midwife, she thought she would do a book of nonfiction. But as she researched and wrote, she found her words sculpting themselves into a novel. She never considered changing the community's name in her novel. 

“Geographically, this place is like no other, and to change its name was to do a disservice to the community," she told me back when I first interviewed her for several articles I wrote about the book and its author. "People have been very generous in sharing their lives and their stories, and I’ve been honoured to listen and reflect some of what I learned. I didn’t want to capture one person or an individual character, but I wanted to capture the heart of the community so I’ve used family names that founded Scotts Bay. The names I didn’t change in any way, however, are those veterans who were killed in World War 1; I mentioned them in the novel as a tribute to the sacrifice they made.” 

What I loved most about The Birth House is the very realness of its characters. Perhaps I recognized echoes of personalities from the present in some of the characters, and perhaps in a small part it was knowing the landscape as intimately as I do that brought the novel even closer to my heart. But above all, it is Ami's ability as a storyteller that seals the deal. Other readers and reviewers have talked about how fresh and honest the book is, playful at times, chilling at others, celebratory of women's lives and abilities at all times without ever descending into earnestness or political correctness. Dora, the apprentice midwife and only daughter in generations of the Rare family, isn't a perfect character, but she feels like someone we have all met. Her battles with the obnoxious obstetrician Dr. Gilbert Thomas, who has his own ideas about women's bodies and health, will cause readers to chuckle in one spot and grit their teeth in outrage at others...and ultimately cheer with glee at the struggle's outcome. 

Even though I've read the book numerous times, each time I've picked it up again I haven't wanted the story to end. Like the rest of Ami's legion of fans around the country and beyond, I'm waiting patiently for her next novel to come out, which hopefully will be later this year after a delay by the publishing house. 

Although I've only read one other of the five finalists in this year's Canada Reads--Unless by the late, great Carol Shields--I wish all the authors and their defending judges the best of luck in the competition. They're all winners because more people will become acquainted with their works, of course. But naturally, I hope our hometown Ami McKay carries the day! 


  1. It's been a few years since I read, "The Birth House," and this year I may just read it again. I absolutely loved it! Ami is one terrific writer, and I'm tickled pink that she's local as well. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.

    Enjoyed learning more about her. Great post!

  2. Jodi, you have made me want to read The Birth House again. It's been some years and I last read it when laid up with my own back injury. I didn't know the full story behind the story and found this so interesting. My fingers are tightly crossed for Ami.

  3. The Birth House is one of the best novels I've ever read. Best of luck to Ami...I'll be following with interest. Great review!

  4. Hi, Jodi and Happy New Year;
    I'll add this to the reading list. Seems like every time I visit and read a review it turns out to be quite fantastic. We must have very similar tastes.

    5 years? Really? I guess that means I've been blogging for almost 5, too. Yikes.

    Did you happen to notice the FB Blogger Fling thing bouncing around today? I realize Seatlle about as far from you as could be but I'd still hope you attend. Would love the chance to share a spot of tea with you person.

  5. Hi Jodi,

    Have just discovered your blog and am delighted to have done so! I am retiring to Nova Scotia later this year and want to get in to gardening, so you are now firmly on my favourites list!

    Have just ordered The Birth House for my New Year reading, thank you for the review.

    Happy New Year!

    Best wishes,

  6. I have read before that you liked this book. I will have to get it. Thanks for the review.

  7. I love this site! Always a delight to find people still interested in CanLit. I have yet to read The Birth House, but I'll be picking it up this afternoon and starting it as soon as I finish Adam Levin's massive The Instructions.

    I'm a Toronto based writer currently blogging about my attempt to self-publish my next novel, Hanlan's Point. Follow along at www.jakebabad.com. Today I'm giving away an adavance copy.

  8. I just ordered the book, Jodi. It sounds like just the type of book I love. Thank you for the recommendation!

  9. I'm curious...where in Indiana is she from? (Maybe it's near me!)

  10. Hi Jodi,
    Ian let me know you posted this - so I'm popping out of my groundhog hole to say "thanks so much!" What a wonderful time I had during that interview. I always enjoy sitting down with you to share tea and conversation!!!

    Hope you're surviving this latest winter blast.
    hugs to you and LSS - Happy New Year!!!

    (Oh, and to answer Kylee's question...I grew up just outside of Lebanon, Indiana, between Indy and Chicago on I-65.)

  11. Hi Ami! I've been to Lebanon a couple of times. I live just east of Ft. Wayne, in Ohio, and work there (FW). I graduated from IU in FW and one of my fellow dental hygiene classmates was from Lebanon - Jane Richardson. I've lost track of her since graduation.

    Looking forward to reading your book, Ami! I always trust Jodi's opinions. :-)

  12. This books sounds like a wonderful story. I'll have to find it soon. And I've enjoyed the background you've given. It definitely adds to the review.

  13. Oh no, something else to read! I've dipped back into fiction since I'm teaching a new short story class this spring, and this looks interesting. It is always good to learn about the writing process from other writers, as well--sorta makes one feel less alone in a lonely business. Thanks, Jodi!

  14. An excellent review, Jodi! I've read about this book somewhere before, but your review has convinced me I need to put this on my "must-read" list.

  15. Dinamarca Lorenzen18 January, 2011 12:03

    Jodi, I so enjoy your writing and your views and recommendations.

    When I read this review of the Birth House by Ami McKay, I went to find it and read it.

    Wow! Ami is such a good writer that when I finished the book it was not so much that I had 'read'
    it as I had 'experienced' it. I am looking forward to reading more books by Ami McKay. I hope that she will be recognized for this wonderful work through 'Canada Reads'and beyond. Simply loved 'The Birth House'.

    Jodi, I so enjoy your blog and look forward to your book. I also thank you (belatedly) for the really good interview and article you did on me and my work, many years ago.


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