A Decent Woman

Written by Eleanor Parker Sapia
Review by Sarah Johnson

Because it provides a credible career option for independent women of the past, midwifery is a natural subject for female-centered historical novels. Ami McKay’s The Birth House and Patricia Harman’s Midwife of Hope River, to name two, speak to women’s struggles to pursue this time-honored practice after the advent of modern medicine, a male-dominated field. Parker Sapia’s passionately written debut also fits this description – and its heroine faces more barriers than most.

In 1900, Ana Belén is the only midwife in the village of La Playa in a newly American Puerto Rico. She has an impeccable track record, but she’s illiterate and lacks the necessary credentials at a time of increasing regulation. She does have allies, such as young Serafina Martínez, with whom Ana forms a lifelong bond after delivering Serafina’s first baby during a fierce storm. Over the next two decades, their stories diverge and reunite as they fight to live a life of their choosing, avoid scandals, and find worthy life partners. The latter is especially difficult; most of the male characters are chauvinists, adulterers, or worse.

In addition to the uncommon setting, Ana’s multicultural background makes the novel stand out. A Cuban former slave with a past full of turmoil, she wears a rosary of poisoned seeds and makes regular offerings to Yorùbá gods and goddesses. The author doesn’t make the mistake of making either her or Serafina too feisty: both are kind, respectable women with whom readers can identify. Parker Sapia writes with strong illustrative powers, with striking imagery of street fiestas, a society ball, and blood-soaked deliveries. There are a few weaknesses: the narrative jumps around in parts, and there are numerous copyediting mistakes. In all, it’s worth reading for its warm portrait of women’s supportive friendships and its perspective on early 20th-century Puerto Rican society.