Friday, January 31, 2014

The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman

Reviewed by Kristin

Patience Murphy has a difficult but very important job in Depression era West Virginia:  delivering babies.  She often takes care of the deliveries that the doctor won’t bother with, and those that are least likely to pay.  The book opens with a crying woman that Patience has just had to tell that her baby is dead.  With limited instruments and limited training, Patience is often the only person these coal mining families can go to for help.  Being called out in the middle of the night is not uncommon, and sometimes the families simply have nothing to give her for payment.  (Happily accepted payments might be a ham, a side of bacon, or a promise of a cord of wood for the winter.)

Patience is soon persuaded to take on Bitsy, a young African American girl, as a helper.  With Bitsy, Patience’s practice expands as more of the African American community is willing to call the midwife for assistance.  Bitsy becomes a true companion to Patience, in a time when social mixing of the races was much less accepted.

As the book progresses, Patience’s past is revealed.  Growing up in an orphanage, a lost love, and great heartbreak have brought her to the gentle mountains where she helps women and their babies.  Of course a little touch of romance is thrown in, as she meets veterinarian Daniel Hester.

I was interested in the book as it was set in an Appalachian mining town in the 1930’s, and one branch of my family lived in a Kentucky coal mining town in that time period and beyond.  Whenever I read stories of the difficulty of life in that kind of community, I connect with them as I think that my great-grandparents must have been very familiar with those hardships.  Even though life was hard, my grandma told me this about the Depression in a coal mining town:  “We were poor, but we didn’t know we were poor--because everyone we knew lived the same way.”  Even so, knowing that my great-grandparents lost babies to malnutrition or a failure to thrive, reading this type of story gives me a fuller understanding of the life conditions people endured not so long ago.

I found this to be a hopeful book, with characters looking for the small joys of life in a time when life was not easy.  Patience is a unique character who is willing to go out of her way, even to put herself at risk, for others.

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