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August 19th, 2007  · Rachel

Rachel reviews "Midwives", a fictional novel by Chris Bohjalian.

(Fiction)Review of "Midwives" a novel by Chris Bohjalian

Although I have never experienced one myself, novelist Chris Bohjalian made me feel the chilling cold of a winter storm in Vermont. It was due to the storm that experienced midwife Sibyl Danforth found herself in unfamiliar territory; normally she would have transferred her laboring patient to the hospital for failure to progress, but the storm rendered them cut off from the outside world. In a noble attempt to save the life of an unborn baby, Sibyl performs an emergency cesarean section on the mother, whom she believes has just died from a ruptured cerebral aneurysm, but there are those who assert that although Sibyl saved the baby, it was the c-section that had actually killed the mother. The dramatic story of the subsequent investigation, trial and emotional impact on her family is told by Sibyl’s daughter, Connie, who was 13 at the time of the ordeal.

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Connie Danforth is a brilliantly developed character. She tells her story, years later, when she is a grown women and practicing OB/GYN. Throughout the novel, the reader is kept in touch with the thoughts, feelings and fears of a thirteen-year-old girl who is struggling to deal with the complexities of the situation that she has been thrust into. While her parents are preoccupied with the pressure of having to mount a defense to a criminal charge, Connie struggles to deal with the possibility of losing her mother. By turning to her boyfriend and friends for support, Connie spends her first summer as a teenager with one foot in a very adult world.

Insight into Sibyl Danforth’s psyche is gained through passages from her personal diaries. Initially, these passages talk about midwifery in general and reveal why Sibyl is so passionate about her own work. Later, the passages focus more on the emotional strain of the legal battle and her self-doubt.

Through this novel, Bohjalian really captures the nature of the animosity that the medical community holds for midwifery. While medical practitioners usually cite the numerous risks of labour and child-birth as reasons for delivering babies in hospitals, Bohjalian captures deeper, more subtle distinctions between the two groups: the difference between an OB/GYN and the woman who becomes a midwife is less about education, philosophy or upbringing, and more about “the depth of her appreciation for the miracle of labor and for life in its moment of emergency.”

Although not a mystery or “who done it”, Bohjalian brilliantly unfolds the story by providing background and details only when they add something to the story. Suspense is maintained right to the last page, as the twists and turns of the investigation and Sibyls notebook musings are revealed. As I imagined myself occupying a position in the jury box, I was unsure of what my finding would be as I felt torn by differing elements of the case.

Oprah Winfrey has picked another good book for her Book Club, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good paced enjoyable drama.

Click to purchase a new (or used) copy of Midwives from

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Updated: 19-Aug-2007
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