Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman

The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman takes us into the 1930s world of Patience Murphy, recently certified midwife, as she attends to a growing number of mothers around her West Virginia home.  Patience's adventures as a country midwife give us a cross-section of the population: black, white, rich, poor, young, old, and even Amish.  Seeing the many ways women cope with the impending birth is fascinating.  Some scream and fight against it, others dance with their husbands, nearly carefree until the last moment.  Patience assists with all kinds of births, hurrying off to places unknown at any hour of the day or night, often receiving nothing but gratitude in return for her services during the hard times of the Depression.  Patience's frequent calls to attend at births keep up the pace of a book to brisk clip, but in between Harman is hard at work drawing out a complex character in Patience herself. 

Patience has a much richer history than at first meets the eye, and Harman slowly leads readers into the dark corners of the past that has had her on the run.  Patience is no stranger to heartbreak or to tragedy, but her experience has opened her up to viewing all kinds of people as no different than her, which makes her stick out like a sore thumb among the racist whites of West Virginia who don't take kindly to her setting up house with a black girl, her new birthing assistant, Bitsy.  As Patience faces threats and troubles from all sides, she finds herself an unexpected ally in Daniel Hester, the local veterinarian, who threatens to poke holes in the shield she has erected to fend off those who might be too curious about her mysterious past. 

Aside from some minor quibbles about the redundancy that occurs in the rhythm of the book (birth, memories, birth, more memories, birth...), I very much enjoyed The Midwife of Hope River.  Patricia Harman has knit together a community of mostly lovable yet very different characters from the well-off wife of a local coal baron to the older, wiser midwife to the black community who takes Patience under her wing.  At the center is Patience who is a strong and well-developed character in her own right but also a lens through which to view the times.  Patience's life has brought her into the paths of lesbians, flappers, workers unionizing to struggle for their rights, coal miners trying to scrape out a meager living, coal barons losing everything to the market crash, and various and sundry "ordinary" people who dot the West Virginia countryside making a living however they can.  Through Patience's lens, both the 1920s the Depression era are brought to life.

Patience is a captivating character who I easily fell in love with.  She is strong, capable, and stands up for her principles, doing what her heart tells her even when it's dangerous and possibly deadly.  The Midwife of Hope River is a quick read and absorbing piece of historical fiction.  Here's hoping that Patricia Harman has a few more historical midwives up her sleeve!

Thanks to the publisher, William Morrow Paperbacks, for providing me with a copy in exchange for my honest review.


  1. I really want to read this one. Harman is a midwife so I'm sure it's accurate.

  2. This sounds like a good read, especially as the author is actually a midwife.