Prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan, unions, Mother Jones—the early-20th century would be a tough world for anyone. Orphan, unwed mother, widow, midwife—Patience Murphy is a worthy adversary.
Following her acclaimed memoirs (Arms Wide Open: A Midwife’s Journey, 2011, etc.), Harman offers her debut novel, tracing the life of a midwife in Appalachia. Yet Patience Murphy is no ordinary midwife. Indeed, much of society would question whether she meets the primary qualification for midwives in early-20th-century America: good moral character. Orphaned at the age of 14, Patience is sent to live first with a kind widow and then to Saint Mary’s House of Mercy Orphanage. She makes good use of herself, reading to the younger children and working in the laundry. Eventually, Patience escapes her drudgery to become a chorus girl, lying about her name and age to secure the job. There she falls in love with Lawrence, a scene designer. Soon pregnant, Patience loses her child when Lawrence is killed in a train wreck. Yet Patience’s tribulations and adventures have only begun. She becomes a professional wet nurse, an accidental thief and a fugitive from a would-be rapist. She is welcomed on the fringes of society by union agitators and midwives—until a violent workers’ strike brings her world crashing down. After fleeing to Appalachia, Patience finds herself hiding her past while trying to gain some professional respect—a difficult goal, given that midwives could not legally perform internal exams on their patients. Threading these events together are the fascinating birth stories.
Midwives are warriors in this beautifully sweeping tale.