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Brian Francis moves into The Birth House

"We change, whether we like it or not."

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Halifax Explosion

Halifax underwent great change after the Halifax Explosion, an event that figures in Ami McKay's The Birth House. Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


It's been said that every story ever written is about one of two things: Either a stranger comes to town or the protagonist goes on a journey. And while there may be some exceptions to this simplistic theory, it does ring true for the vast majority of books I've read over the years.

Think about it. How many books have you read in which a protagonist's life is suddenly interrupted by the introduction of a mysterious and questionable character? Or how many of you have read a book in which a character embarks on a journey (sometimes physical, sometimes emotional, sometimes both) that brings about a metamorphosis in that character by the book's end?

It's what we readers look for and anticipate in fiction, whether consciously or unconsciously. We want the journey, the discovery, the stranger's insertion into the daily routines of a character's life.

In other words, we want to learn about how people deal with adversity.

Stripped down, books are mostly about change. They're about starting somewhere in life and ending up someplace else. And while the finish line can sometimes lead back to the starting point, it's those climaxes, those denouements, those moments of brilliant revelation, that draw us deep into a story.

Ami McKay's The Birth House is a book packed with change. And not just in the context of its characters, but also in history, time, the landscape, and society as a whole.

While I was reading The Birth House, I kept thinking how "big" it was. And while I don't mean that in a literal sense (although it's a pretty hefty 368 pages), I do mean "big" as in its scope. Consider for a moment the historical touchstones McKay covers within her book's pages: early-20th-century rural life, modern medicine, the First World War, the Halifax Explosion, the Spanish Flu, the Boston Molasses Disaster.

But there is more to this book than these moments. There are broader, more timeless complexities explored within The Birth House, including feminism, the conflict between tradition and the modern world, science and nature, duty and destiny, morality and obligation.

Like many books placed within a time frame other than our own, one of the strengths of The Birth House lies in its details. Ami McKay manages to recreate a turn-of-the-century East Coast village in all its vibrancy and idiosyncrasies. It's hard enough for a writer to create a modern-day world that readers can believe in, let alone one that existed 90 years ago.

But, for me, what resonated most strongly in The Birth House were the opposing forces within it. The protagonist, Dora Rare, is a woman steeped in tradition when it comes to her work as a midwife, and yet she must rebel against the traditions of the society around her. She is forced to reconcile herself with the advancing world and must figure out how to navigate her way through shifting tides on her own terms.

Ultimately, The Birth House is about change. Changing times. Changing attitudes. Changing landscapes. But it's also about the resistance to that change. It left me wondering: At what point does change become a negative thing? How much of our embracing of traditions is about our own comfort, our need for security, and not about our evolvement? I can't help but think that in a 21st-century world, Dora could find the support and respect she's denied within her own time. But would this 21st-century world accept Dora and the remedies steeped in tradition that comprise the core of her belief system?

Will this book be the champ? Each week, I'll do a round-up of what I think are the strengths for each title competing for the Canada Reads crown. Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts.

Reasons why The Birth House might take it:

  • The only historical novel in the line-up
  • A "big" book, covering a range of issues
  • Accessible to a wide audience
  • Rooted in the Canadian landscape
  • Defended by Debbie Travis (Well, it's not like I know her, but she seems pretty authoritative on TV)

The Birth House has all the makings to become this year's Canada Reads winner. But will the male-dominated panel embrace a book about midwifery?

Next week, I'll weigh in on The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis.


Brian Francis

Brian Francis is Canada Reads' resident blogger. His debut novel, Fruit, was the runner-up in the Canada Reads 2009 debates. His second novel, The Natural Order, will be published in fall 2011.

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