The Midwife's Tale
I think The Midwife’s Tale might be the first Pennsylvania-set book I’ve read in ages that doesn’t have an Amish person in sight. Instead, readers get to visit a sleepy 19th century country town and follow the adventures of the local midwife as she treats patients and starts to find a love story of her own.
I’ll start by saying that if you enjoy books such as Jan Karon’s Mitford series, you may well like spending time in Trinity, Pennsylvania. The author fills this book with plenty of side stories about various secondary characters, and lots of local color. If the idea of gentle humor and plots that meander leisurely along makes you want to faint from boredom, this may not be your book. Fortunately, this reader found Trinity a primarily enjoyable place to visit.
The title of the book is apt as the story truly does focus on the midwife, a fortysomething widow named Martha Cade. By all accounts, Martha seems to have loved her husband, but especially now that her two surviving children are grown, midwifery takes up the largest part of her life. Through Martha’s eyes, we see a vision of 19th century life that is largely non-romanticized. Everyone, Martha included, works very hard just to keep food on the table and households running. As a widow with no resources other than the payments she receives from patients, Martha has had to live in a small room attached to her brother’s tavern and even though we see how simple her life is, readers also spend enough time with Martha to see that she views her position as a calling and that she is largely satisfied with her lot in life.
Practical, good humored Martha is a mostly enjoyable character. Her life is not without struggle, as her young adult daughter has recently run off with a travelling theater troupe, making Martha the subject of gossip tinged alternately with scandal and deep concern. Even though Martha appears respected in Trinity, she also faces a threat to her livelihood in the form of a young doctor who has set up shop in town. Like many doctors, Dr. McMillan finds Martha’s way of doing things backward, but his push for modern medicine endangers Martha’s practice.
As the story unfolds, we see Martha tending patients, interacting with friends and finding her way in relations with the new town doctor. There is some drama along the way as a minister and his wife, together with their school for orphan boys, move into town. A house full of rambunctious boys from the street doesn’t entirely please everyone in town, though Martha tries to form a connection with the children. And then there is a hint of romance in the form of the mayor, Thomas Dillon. Thomas and Martha were in love as teens, and now that both are widowed, it appears that the spark of attraction might be coming alive again.
Even though this book feels slow and languid, the many threads of plot kept me engaged as I read. Martha is more a woman of her times than many historical heroines I read, and while I primarily liked her, she did at times come off slightly sanctimonious for modern sensibilities.
However, my main issues with this book arose more toward the end. Many plot threads remain unresolved, including the main romance, and so if one wants to learn the outcome of Martha’s story, reading the sequel(due out in December 2015) will be necessary. In addition, the plots that do get some resolution seemed to get it in an unsatisfyingly abrupt fashion. As a result, I enjoyed The Midwife’s Tale just enough to recommend it, but only with some qualification. I’m hoping the sequel will be a bit more polished.