The Reluctant Midwife
Becky worked as a nurse for cold fish Dr. Isaac Blum for years in the 1920s, but as this novel begins, in the depth of the Great Depression, she’s his caretaker. Blum has fallen into a catatonic state. The former surgeon drools and soils himself. Becky grimly cares for him, not out of any magnificence of spirit but because she can’t stand the alternative, abandoning him to an asylum. The two return to the down-and-out town of Hope River in West Virginia, where the town’s midwife, Patience (the heroine of Harman’s first book, The Midwife of Hope River) and her veterinary husband may be able to help them.
Patience’s optimistic nature contrasts with this novel’s lead character, Becky, who is shackled by her fears and doubts. Becky doesn’t even like midwifery – there’s too great a possibility for catastrophe. Becky is often judgmental and negative rather than forgiving. I can get fed up with too-flawed characters, but Becky’s travails weren’t off-putting. I could see too clearly how she was hurting herself more than anyone else. After Dr. Blum and Becky move in with Patience and the veterinary husband, Dr. Blum slowly begins to recover, and we wonder if he’ll end up being a partner for Becky – or perhaps she’ll meet someone at the Civilian Conservation Corps, where she gets a job as a nurse. Births, some scary all joyous, are scattered throughout the novel, and Becky begins to recover as well, opening herself to happiness.
This novel feels as though it’s real, coming more from memoir than research and the author’s imagination. There’s a reason for that: Harman is a working midwife as well as a wonderful storyteller. Recommended.