Friday, March 20, 2015

In the Reluctant MidWife by Patricia Harmon,The Great Depression Meets a Plucky RN

In THE RELUCTANT MIDWIFE (William Morrow, March), Becky Myers takes on The Great Depression and is almost bested but she makes it through with more than a little help from her friends. As the story opens she and Dr.Isaac Blum, a once brilliant surgeon now catatonic, owe months of rent and must sneak out in the night and trust they have enough gas to make it to Hope River in rural Virginia.

Patricia Harman's heroine is actually short on hope, fighting the edge of despair. Becky's almost glad survival is occupying her mind. Though she's been a respected nurse in a woman's clinic and Dr.Blum's practice, hard times have made inroads into her cheerful middle class respectability. When she learns Blum's house in Hope River has been sold, along with his belongings and tools from his practice, she knows they are not just broke but homeless.

Though Becky tries to find any kind of employment, she's told there are "able-bodied men out of work," and offered a humiliating hand-out. Yet plucky Becky fights desperation, until Blum wanders off lured by the smell of a soup kitchen. She' runs, desperate to retrieve him. Though harmless, Blum's complete silence and vacant eyes scare people. Becky is loyal but Blum's a 24 hour job, so incapacitated he can't go to the bathroom alone or brush his teeth. When his wife drove into a river, she took his mind with her. Then Blum's own brother turned him out, Becky, without family, has made him her charge, though she thinks, ironically, how he's dependent as any child.

They need help but who? Unexpectedly, Blum says "patience," and she knows he means find Patience, her old friend, the midwife of Hope River. She has about enough gas to reach the cottage with the blue door, which turns out to be empty. Patience must have left the area, Becky thinks but soon learns she  only moved a short distance with her Veterinarian husband and son. The family
welcomes Becky and Blum, gives them the cottage and food. There's a sense of family after her alienation and fear. Yet, Becky must earn their living. When Patience reveals she's pregnant and shows Becky a list of local women in need of her services, Becky quakes. She owes a lot to Patience, but is reluctant to become her assistant.

While enormously competent and hardworking, Becky aided Blum in deliveries but midwifery was different. Blood and mess aren't fun,but it's the unpredictability, as well as her own ineptitude that fills her with dread. Still, she prods herself to help Patience. Worse are cases, when she finds herself alone with women in jeopardy, as they all seem to be. There are supposedly easy deliveries, where everything goes wrong, complex situations, such as a blind mother-to-be, where it goes easy. Becky finds the work frightening. But over time she accepts that in midwifery, like life, all you can do is prepare. Yet she's thrilled to trade it for a nursing job at the camp of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

There's great characters there, among the injured and maimed. The dashing captain, who recruits Becky, and takes her to a dinner, where she even meets Eleanor Roosevelt. Becky proves heroic during a horrendous forest fire and when it comes to Patience's delivery, But it's the day in, day out caring for the lost Blum that shows a quiet courage--to carry on while grieving the man he used to be,faith. Then, almost under her nose, Blum returns,

THE RELUCTANT MIDWIFE is both heart warming and authentic.. The feeling you get for these people is earned. The story is realistic, nothing feels contrived. The Depression meant the end of possibility for many people. Living close to the land, nature is both beautiful and malevolent. How these people managed to just continue and thrive is about the human capacity to change and adapt. Becky is resourceful. She holds onto the idea of happiness. In this very gray winter, I felt cheered by her pluck.

S.W.