Once a Midwife: A Hope River Novel

Written by Patricia Harman
Review by Helene Williams

In Harman’s third volume of the Hope River series, midwife Patience Hester must use all her skills, medical, physical, and emotional, to get through the difficult year of 1942. She and her veterinarian husband, Daniel, are eking out a living in Liberty, West Virginia, with their four children when two life-changing events happen: the US enters the second world war, and Patience’s best friend and fellow midwife, Bitsy, returns to Liberty after ten years in Philadelphia. Bitsy is black, and has to fight against small-town mindsets. Daniel is a pacifist, having sworn never to take up arms again after the Great War, and his outspoken anti-war attitude puts the Hester family further into the community crosshairs.

There is a plethora of historical and cultural material to mine here, and some aspects, such as Patience and Daniel’s relationship, do have some depth. Other facets, such as problems with the children, or events involving Bitsy, are brushed off quickly, which lessens the story’s credibility. The chronological narrative is told in first person, with some chapters written specifically as diary entries; in other chapters, the first-person perspective makes the contextual details awkward, and in yet other chapters, letters and newspaper reports provide background. These shifts in perspective, along with inconsistent and anachronistic references throughout the book, further detract from both the storyline and the historical accuracy. When a would-be renter proposes to pay an amount that’s more than the US average income of the time, for example, the narrative spell is broken. Inconsistent and untimely references to race and ethnic heritage also indicate authorial discomfort rather than appropriate vocabulary reflective of the time. There is a lot in this book to keep the story going forward; a little more historical research and care in word choice would strengthen the characters as well as the tale.