The Midwife's Tale
by Gretchen Moran Laskas
Published by The Dial Press
243 pages, 2003
Birthin' Babies in Old Appalachia
Reviewed by David Abrams
Unlike Prissy in Gone With the Wind, Elizabeth Whitely knows somethin' 'bout birthin' babies. For generations, the women of her family have attended the births of most children in Kettle Valley, West Virginia -- lovingly, grimly serving as midwives and, sometimes when the births go bad or the child is unwanted, acting as merciful murderers.
Mama always said that most of being a good midwife was in knowing the family history. Not just the birthing story of any given woman -- although that was a good thing to keep in mind -- but the whole history Mama called this "the history of the body," as there were a lot of folks, family and otherwise, who had gone before this person, and remembering those people was nearly as important to a midwife as anything we might do with our hands.
So begins Gretchen Moran Laskas' debut novel, The Midwife's Tale, which details Elizabeth's life in the Appalachian hills in the early 1900s.
While the story is not always engaging -- the young girl falls in love with an older married man, moves into his cabin when his wife dies, then helps raise his gifted daughter -- the characters and period details are compelling enough to keep readers turning pages.
Mama was standing right behind me now. I could feel her breath in my hair. I could smell the scent that was Mama's -- part sweet like the flow of a woman before the baby comes and part tart, like green apples in early fall.
This is just one example of Laskas' sharp nose for detail. It's moments like these which bring the book alive.
The Midwife's Tale unspools gently across the page, as comforting in its nostalgia as the sound of an old foot-pump organ in a country church. Even as newfangled automobiles start sputtering through the streets of the nearby towns, life on Elizabeth's mountain continues at its gentle homespun pace. It's a world where the right herb or root can nurse a person back to health, where weather can strand you from the rest of your family for days on end, where homilies from Grandmother can be like a bell tolling through the rest of your life: "Sometimes the ones you know the least are the ones you can love the most. Knowing a person too well can be a heavy burden."
This includes Elizabeth's own family, to which she alternately cleaves and leaves throughout the book. Compounding her complicated feelings for her mother is the fact that she's "baseborn," which sets her apart from all those legitimate children she helps bring into the world.
Still, through all the births and deaths, family is always at the heart of the novel. Notice, for instance, how many chapters begin with the words "Mama always said " Like oral storytelling, The Midwife's Tale feels like something which has been passed down for generations in Laskas' own family (and, indeed, in the acknowledgments that's the first thing she mentions).
Laskas' novel has the homespun purity of The Waltons, but still contains enough blood and grit to ground Elizabeth's world in reality. There are times you'll believe you're right there in the close confines of a mountain cabin, smell of candle wax in your nostrils, baby's quivering squall in your ears. The book is like a literary time machine, transporting the reader to another world, another era with just the turn of a page. | September 2003
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.