Book Review – Midwives

Chris Bohjalian

This morning as I was scanning news articles, I ran across a story about a young woman who died shortly after giving birth at home to her second child with the aid of a midwife.  Caroline Lovell, 36, was a strong advocate for at-home births in Australia and passed away last month when she went into cardiac arrest shortly after giving birth to her baby daughter.  The idea was so horrific that I kept thinking that it sounded like a bad story out of some novel.  And then I remembered that – in a way – that’s exactly what it was.  It was reminiscent of a book I recently read by Chris Bohjalian titled, Midwives.
Narrated by the teenage daughter of a lay midwife, Midwives is the story of Sybil Danforth, a respected midwife on trial for her life after the tragic death of one of her patients.  The story unfolds on an icy winter night in rural Vermont when Sybil Danforth is called to the bedside of one of her pregnant mothers.  As the day progresses and yet the delivery does not, Sybil begins to realize that her patient’s life – and that of her unborn baby –  may soon be in serious jeopardy.  As she begins to prepare to have her patient transferred to a hospital to be cared for by medical professionals, her worst nightmare becomes a reality.
As Sybil tries to call for an ambulance, she realizes that the ice storm raging outside was worse than she or her patient had realized. The heavy ice had broken the phone lines, making communication with the outside world impossible.  She then attempts to move her vehicle close to the house to transport the patient to the hospital herself, but finds the roads so slick that her vehicle promptly ends up in a ditch.  With no other alternative, Sybil comes to the conclusion that she is her patient’s only hope and so she settles in to do what she has been informally trained to do:  deliver the baby.
When the worst case scenario becomes a reality and she believes her patient has died of a stroke, Sybil is forced to perform an emergency cesarean section to save the life of the unborn child.  But did the patient really die before the first cut was taken?  Or was it Sybil’s cut to free the infant from what she believed to be the body of a dead woman that actually ended the mother’s life?  Amid the backlash of controversy surrounding the legality of home births, it will take a courtroom of lawyers, medical professionals and Sybil’s own account of the evening’s events to discover the truth.  But does the truth really matter when a woman is dead?  And would the outcome be the same or different if that mother had chosen to have her baby under the care of a medical doctor, or if Sybil had been able to transport her patient to a hospital?
Regardless of your personal opinions regarding home versus hospital births, Midwives is a riveting page-turner that will cause you to examine your own beliefs regarding a mother’s right to choose where to give birth.
Midwives is available at the Rochester Public Library on audio CD or is downloadable to e-readers through the library’s digital collection.  
For more information about this book and other books by this same author, visit the author’s website at
For more information about Caroline Lovell and her recent death following a home birth,  you can follow this link to read the story from the MSNBC website.

~ Catherine H. Armstrong


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s