Family saga and first novel by Laskas (stories: Fifty Acres and a Poodle, 2000) about the travails of three generations of backwoods women who serve as midwives.
The Whitely women have been midwives for as long as any of their West Virginia neighbors can remember. We enter their world through the eyes of Elizabeth Whitely, a teenager in the years just before WWI and somewhat reluctantly learning the trade from her mother. Elizabeth is a bit delicate for the grueling work of midwifery—and horrified at its seamier aspects, like the mercy killings that are sometimes asked for. But she is also awed by childbirth, including the “miracle babies” who are born dead but come to life in their mothers’ arms. One of these is Lauren Denniker, daughter of Ivy and Alvin, whom Elizabeth brought into the world. Ivy and Alvin are unhappily married, and Elizabeth is secretly in love with Alvin. When Ivy dies, Elizabeth moves in with Alvin as his common-law wife and raises Lauren as her own. She and Alvin try to have another child, but, cruelly, Elizabeth turns out to be barren. As Lauren grows, Elizabeth becomes aware of an ethereal quality about her—and discovers that (at age eight) Lauren has the gift of healing. Alvin and Elizabeth manage to keep Lauren’s powers secret for a while, but when the girl cures a dying baby, her fame spreads, and to keep his daughter from being turned into a circus freak, Alvin moves to California with her, leaving Elizabeth behind. Elizabeth stays on miserably, delivering babies and trying to forget her own loneliness. She falls in love with David Newland, a circus performer, and the two settle down together. Happily married, Elizabeth is still tormented by her inability to have children. When Lauren returns, years later, to visit her stepmother, Elizabeth knows what she needs to ask for.
Evocative storytelling, though the atmosphere of strong backwoods women eventually becomes as suffocating as a henhouse in July.