Men may be dogs and romance a joke, but for two country midwives in early-20th-century Canada, there’s always the joy of “catching” babies.
Dora Rare is an anomaly, the first female to be born into the family for five generations. She and her six siblings, all boys, bunk down together in their home in Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, until her impoverished shipbuilder father sends her to live with Miss B., an elderly Cajun midwife. Dora, 17 and never been kissed, is soon assisting with a delivery, and Miss B. designates the young woman her successor. The midwife is not without enemies. It’s 1917, and the money-grubbing Dr. Thomas has established his maternity home nearby, hoping to drive Miss B. out of business. But the old lady forces the doctor to admit he has yet to deliver his first baby. Meanwhile, a marriage is being arranged for Dora, to ladies’ man Archer, son of the wealthy Widow Bigelow. Dora, who has low expectations (“A love affair in Scots Bay would just look foolish”), goes along. Archer drinks heavily, abuses her and disappears three months after the wedding. But Dora is coming into her own as a midwife (Miss B. has vanished). When Brady Ketch, the community’s most vicious husband and father, dumps his battered 13-year-old daughter on her doorstep, Dora can’t save the young mother, but delivers a healthy baby, aided by a crow’s feather and some pepper. This is grim material, but McKay has a light touch, and narrator Dora goes her own sweet way, adopting the baby and sighing with relief when she learns Archer has drowned. She’s not afraid to bar Dr. Thomas with a pitchfork when he tries to interrupt a delivery, or to eventually live with Archer’s kindly brother Hart as his lover, not his wife.
This unclassifiable debut was a bestseller in Canada, helped no doubt by its challenging vision of old-fashioned midwives as feminist pioneers.