Columns
2:59 pm
Mon October 20, 2003

Book Review by Nicki Leone

An Appalachian parable in the tradition of Lee Smith.

Wilmington NC – [Click the LISTEN button to hear Nicki's review.]

In the bookstore, we have a bad habit of comparing all books to other, better-known books, and all writers to other more famous writers: ?If you like John Grisham, then try David Baldacci. If you like Bridget Jones?s Diary then you definitely want to read The Devil Wears Prada??. It is as hard to avoid as trying to discuss a book without talking about its movie. So when I finished reading The Midwife?s Tale by Gretchen Moran Laskas, almost the first thing I thought was: ?this is for people who like Lee Smith or Robert Morgan.? The time period is similar: the turn of the century, that marvelous and wrenching period when so many old ways were lost to progress, The Appalachian landscape is similar: it is a country defined more by its mountains than its county lines. The characters are familiar- strong young women who persevere against anything life throws their way. But while I don?t suppose that the author would resent any comparisons to either Smith or Morgan, the truth is, Laskas has a style that is completely distinct and her own.

A Midwife?s Tale is Elizabeth Whitely?s tale, a daughter and a midwife in a long line of daughters and midwives at the foot of Denniker Mountain. Like her mother and her grandmother before her, she has attended every birth in her community, offering support and succor. In her mother?s house is row after row of black leather ledgers filled with the details of three generations of family births from the country all around the mountain. In an era before good medical records were kept, the books helped the women to remember a family?s history?which ones had an easy time of it, which women had long labors. Which families were prone to twins, and which ones were prone to the come-hither eyes of the young, strong mineworkers.

But one day Elizabeth discovers a different ledger, a red one, that her mother has kept hidden. In that book is the list of births that went badly. Babies designated only by the word ?boy? or ?girl?, and occasionally by a letter ?D?. When Elizabeth finally discovers what ?D? stands for, her world is turned upside down. She walks out of her mother?s house, away from midwifery, and eventually up Denniker mountain into the arms of a man who doesn?t love her, to raise a child who is not her own.

What it takes to get Elizabeth down the mountain and back to her place in the world is really the tale. Elizabeth learns that it isn?t enough to love a man, if he can?t love you back. But it is enough to love a child, even if the child is someone else?s. She learns that even up on the Denniker mountain she is not safe from the changes that are happening down below. Wars come and go. Epidemics take entire families. And babies still get born.

Elizabeth is an unusual protagonist. As an apprentice midwife, she is no innocent to the way that babies are conceived. Nor is she naive about the desires that bring men and women together. In fact, she is a very sexual being, consumed by a misguided passion but fully aware of what and who she wants. Whatever she feels for the young man she follows up the mountain, it isn?t clouded by guilt or shame.

A Midwife?s Tale is sort of a story, but also a kind of parable--a mountain legend. It is a testament to the power of the author?s writing that it feels less like fiction than oral history- a recitation you might hear on the porch from your grandmother about her grandmother. And like all oral history, it is one you had best be paying attention to, or the lessons will be lost to you and your daughters.