The Midwife of Hope River

Written by Patricia Harman
Review by Marina Maxwell

Patience Murphy is a “thirty-six year old widow, wanted by the law in two states,” so when she takes up the duties of midwife in rural West Virginia in 1929, it’s clear she’s going to face challenges far beyond ensuring the health of the women in her care.

Her darkest secrets are revealed gradually through flashbacks, and although she lives in constant fear of discovery, that doesn’t stop her from displaying liberal notions and taking risks. She’s even prepared to infringe state guidelines or try innovative methods if necessary. When Bitsy, a colored girl, becomes her assistant and moves in to share her home as an equal, Patience inevitably invites more controversy. And her growing relationship with the local vet, Daniel Hester, further complicates matters.

Patience observes that “Birth is a messy, primitive event, and… it’s not for everyone”, and the numerous scenes of life struggling its way into the world – some animal as well as human – are certainly graphic.

Not all of the births are intrinsic to the plot, but they add reality and truth about this fundamental and often dangerous aspect of women’s lives in the past, and it is rare to find such sympathetic and accurate descriptions elsewhere in historical fiction.

The author’s affinity for the setting with its poverty and injustice can’t be faulted, although readers unfamiliar with the miners’ strikes and union battles of the era might like some exposition as to the real historical characters and events, such as in a postscript or author’s notes.

The ending is satisfying with potential for a sequel, but there is also much intriguing material in Patience’s back story for a powerful prequel as well. Heart-warming, rewarding, and recommended – although with a warning that men could find some content confronting!