The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harmon
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks
Review copy received at SIBA 2012
From the publisher:
As a midwife working in the hardscrabble conditions of Appalachia during the Depression, Patience Murphy’s only solace is her gift: the chance to escort mothers through the challenges of childbirth. Just beginning, she takes on the jobs no one else wants: those most in need-and least likely to pay. Patience is willing to do what it takes to fulfill her mentor’s wishes, but starting a midwife practice means gaining trust, and Patience’s secrets are too fragile to let anyone in.
A stirring piece of Americana, The Midwife of Hope River beats with authenticity as Patience faces seemingly insurmountable conditions: disease, poverty, and prejudices threaten at every turn. From the dangerous mines of West Virginia to the terrifying attentions of the Klu Klux Klan, Patience must strive to bring new light, and life, into an otherwise cruel world.
After hearing Patricia Harmon speak at SIBA 2012, I knew I wanted to read this book as soon as I got home. Unfortunately, I took way too many books home with me and then life got in the way and now it’s two years later and I’m finally getting to this one, the LAST of my SIBA books to read, and I’m annoyed that it took me so long to read this one because it’s GREAT. This is the kind of novel that you can sit with for hours, wrapped up in a time and place completely different from your own, following the amazing Patience around as she goes through her days, saving lives and birthing babies. It’s incredibly interesting, engaging reading.
The star of this novel is the midwife herself, Patience Murphy. She’s compassionate, caring, and genuine, yet truly no-nonsense when it comes to dealing with women in labor and saving lives. She does exactly what she has to do in a matter-of-fact way to get the job done, and the work she does is so fast-paced to the point where sometimes there’s no time to show tender loving care. I loved the many sides of Patience – she has such a heart of gold, yet when someone attempts to get close to her she has a tendency to put walls up for fear of getting hurt. There are two people in this novel who eventually break down those walls – a friend who ends up becoming a roommate, and a potential love interest – and watching these relationships unfold was pure joy for me. I loved seeing Patience shed some of the pain from her past and open herself up to a potential future.
Patricia Harmon used her own extensive background and experience as a midwife to craft this story, and her knowledge and understanding of midwifery shines through. I’m sure that some of the situations Patience is faced with in the novel are exact things that happened to Harmon’s laboring mothers when she was a practicing midwife. The whole story just felt so genuine, it was crystal clear that Harmon really knows her stuff.
The other thing I loved about this novel is how the history of the time and place comes through in surprising ways. Patience has to figure out how to navigate major racial tensions while tending to (and loving) black families, and eventually taking over for the only black midwife in the area. She has to fight against the KKK and deal with dire poverty – both her own and her patients’. There is a scene at the end where Patience is being attacked in her own home, and it is truly terrifying. To think that this was a reality for people not too long ago, and in some cases is still possible today, is eye-opening and very hard to think about. But I loved how Harmon used these issues as a background for the more pivotal story – that of the midwife and her work and life. It wasn’t an “issue” book – the issues were just there, just a part of Patience’s life.
I really enjoyed The Midwife of Hope River and I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to read it. If you’re like me and have been sitting on this title for a while, don’t wait any longer! It is truly an excellent book and I really, really enjoyed it.