The Birth House by Ami McKay.

By Sian Hannagan
Sep 2014

Dora Rare, the first daughter born in five generations of Rare’s, was born in the caul, touched by magic, a changeling, a witch. Born out of turn, born a woman, she lives her life caught between her desire for self determination and the close set rules of a rural village community. Set in Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, her journey from daughter to wife, wife to midwife is set against the pre-suffragette backdrop of small town Canada just as the birth of what we now call modern obstetrics begins. As a young woman with six brothers, she struggles against her father’s expectations and a community that regards with suspicion any woman who does not conform to pre-set ideals. She is taken under the wing of the village midwife, an Acadian woman called Mrs Babineau who fills a unique space in the village. She is needed and trusted as much as she is spurned and abhorred. Regarded with suspicion, she is tolerated by the men and revered by the women, she is ‘other’ and sits outside of the common boundaries of womanhood. Mrs Babineau guides Dora on her path to midwifery. Her knowledge on the birthing of babies is steeped in the mythic and the very real. Her wisdom is built from folklore, passed down knowledge and a deep understanding of a woman’s body. As the book progresses, we see that this wisdom is valueless in the eyes of ‘men of knowledge’, and as such, Dora’s story, woven from the threads womanhood and domesticity, becomes tangled, when a profit driven Doctor comes to Scots Bay to change the face of childbirth.

This story steps through into the secret life of women as they exist in a pre-suffragette patriarchal world, the storytelling is as majestic and otherworldly as it is simple and sturdy. The story, in its simplicity, speaks of how a woman’s wisdom and the divine feminine is fragmented by concepts like hysteria, virginity, femininity and infidelity. This story is about a place in time where women did not own their sexual agency and its narrative leads us to question the sexual agency of women today. The concepts raised in an herstorical context are still relevant now. McKay’s artful writing draws us into Dora’s world and as we read, we also reflect on birth as it is for women now. The Birth House is a powerful story that will speak to women and midwives, daughters and mothers. It’s not often that a work of fiction manages to be so honestly and sweetly true.

“Our parents and teachers say it’s (birth is) a miracle, but it’s not. It’s going to happen no matter what, there’s no choice in the matter. How a mother comes to love her child, her caring at all for this thing that’s made her heavy, lopsided and slow, this thing that made her wish that she were dead . . . that’s the miracle.”

Dora Rare, The Birth House.

Ami began her writing career as a ‘closet writer’, she spent most of her nights filling notebooks and journals with short stories and ideas for novels, putting her words under the bed where no one else could read them. A thank you note written as a conscious effort to thank people unexpectedly in the year 2000, “the year of writing thank-you notes to people I don’t know” led to an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show and inspired the next step in her writing career. She set about writing ‘The Birth House’

Photo credit Ian McKay

Lured to Scotts Bay by a man who recites Byron (“She walks in beauty like the night”) years before, Ami found herself living in an old house on the Bay of Fundy. By spring she was pregnant. As word spread around the community of her “condition” and that she was looking for a midwife to assist in a home birth, neighbours began telling her tales about the history of her home, which was once a midwife’s house. The Birth House. While digging in the garden, she unearthed many relics of the time from medicine bottles to broken China. Her favourite find was an old silver serving spoon: “It was used so often that the edge of the bowl of the spoon had been worn down to an angle. As I stood at my kitchen sink, washing the dirt out of the wheat stalk pattern in the handle, I began to daydream about the woman who had once held this spoon so many days of her life.”

McKay was born in Indiana and taught music in an inner-city Chicago high school before moving to Scots Bay in Nova Scotia in 2000. She has a graduate degree in musicology, as well as writing she worked as a vocal coach. “Finding voice has been an essential part of my life, both as a musician and a writer, there’s something quite magical in helping someone else find theirs.”

Photo credit Ian McKay

Other written work by Ami McKay

    • The Virgin Cure – a novel.
    • Jerome – the Historical Spectacle, Play, for Two Planks and a Passion Theatre.
      Published by Gaspereau Press
    • Motherhood Unplugged, Personal Essay, Between Interruptions
    • No Shoes Required, Personal Essay, My Wedding Dress
    • The Birth House – a novel
    • Daughter of Family G, Feature Documentary for CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition.
    • Kitchen Ghosts, Feature Documentary for CBC Radio’s Outfront
    • The Midwife House, Feature Webumentary for CBC Radio’s Outfront
    • From Smart Girl to Scat Girl, Feature Documentary for CBC Radio’s Outfront
    • Learning to Box, Personal Essay for CBC Radio’s First Person Singular
    • Magazine credits include: Elle Canada, Chatelaine, Canadian Living