Author’s Introduction –
Writing The Birth House was truly an adventure for me. One that was fueled by tales from the past, one that led me to peel off layer after layer of old newspaper from the walls of my attic, and ultimately, one that taught me to ask questions…some easily answered, some left hanging in the air.
I hope the novel leads you to some questions and conversations of your own.
Thanks for reading. Please keep in touch. I’d love to hear from you!
Here is the Reading Guide as a Word document for easy printing. Right click the link and select “save as” to download to your computer.
The Birth House is the story of Dora Rare, the first daughter to be born in five generations of Rares. As a child in an isolated village in Nova Scotia, she is drawn to Miss Babineau, an outspoken Acadian midwife with a gift for healing. Dora become Miss B’s apprentice and together they help the women of Scots Bay through infertility, difficult labours, breech births, unwanted pregnancies and even unfulfilling sex lives. Filled with details as compelling as they are surprising, The Birth House is an unforgettable tale of the struggles women have faced to have control of their own bodies and to keep the best parts of tradition alive in the world of modern medicine.
Reading Group Questions
1. Early in the novel, Dora’s Aunt Fran quotes from The Science of a New Life: “It is almost impossible for a woman to read the current ‘love and murder’ literature of the day and have pure thoughts, and when the reading of such literature is associated with idleness – as it almost invariably is – a woman’s thoughts and feelings cannot be other than impure and sensual.”
How does reading shape Dora’s view of the world?
How does her love of books play into her relationship with her father? With Miss B.? With Archer?
“How a mother comes to love her child, her caring at all for this thing that’s made her heavy, lopsided and slow, this thing that made her wish she were dead…that’s the miracle.”What do you think she meant?
Do you feel this is true?
3. Folklore, home remedies, women’s traditions, herbalism, and a belief in the divine feminine are all part of Miss B.’s way of life. She is determined to pass these things along to Dora.
Does Dora try hard enough to preserve them?
Should she let them go?
What traditions do you hold dear in your life (and why)?
4. According to medical texts and advertisements of the early 1900’s, women who were prone to “emotional behaviour” were often labeled as hysterical. A poster in Dr. Thomas’s office reads:
Feeling Anxious? Tired? Weepy?
You are not alone. The modernization of society has brought about an increase in neurasthenia, greensickness and hysteria.
Symptoms of Neurasthenia include: Weeping, melancholy, anxiety, irritability, depression, outrageousness, insomnia, mental and physical weariness, idle talking, sudden fevers, morbid fears, frequent titillation, forgetfulness, palpitations of the heart, headaches, writing cramps, mental confusion, constant worry and fear of impending insanity. Talk to your physician. He can help.
Do we see this kind of questioning today?
Are women’s emotions still targeted by advertisers?
What does Dora’s decision say about her situation and station in life?
Should she have chosen to follow in Miss B.’s footsteps instead?
6. Through a visit to Dr. Thomas’s office, Dora discovers that women’s sexual pleasure (specifically orgasm) is considered to be a medical function (or dysfunction). Ads of the time, such as the one for the White Cross Vibrator, reinforced this notion.
How does Dora come to terms with these ideas?
What kinds of taboos surround women’s sexuality today?
7. Miss B. says this about Mabel’s home birth: “The scent of a good groanin’ cake, a cuppa hot Mother’s Tea and time. Most times that’s all a mama needs on the day her baby comes.”
She later says this to Dr. Thomas: “Science don’t know kindness. It don’t know kindness from cabbage.”
Dr. Thomas replies: “Science is neither kind nor unkind, Miss Babineau. Science is exact.”
How do these statements show the differences between Miss B. and Dr. Thomas?
In moving the birthing experience from homes and birth houses to hospitals, what have women lost? What have they gained?
8. After Dora discovers Aunt Fran’s affair with Reverend Norton she writes:
“He’s been seeing her. He’s noticed her so much that now she’s his.”
Why do you think she decided to keep it a secret?
Should she have told someone?
What would you have done?
9. Dora says this about her mother: “Everything I’ve learned from Mother, every bit of her truth has been said while her hands were moving.”
What does this say about her relationship with her mother?
Is this kind of communication still an important part of women’s lives?
10. The author uses ephemera from Dora’s life (invitations, news articles, sections from The Willow Book, folk tales, advertisements, etc.) throughout the novel.
How did this affect your reading experience?
Do you have a favourite from them?
11. There are many mentions of birthing folklore and techniques, from groaning cake to mother’s tea, from Miss B. turning Ginny’s breech baby to quilling.
What wives’ tales about pregnancy and birth do you know?
Are there any that you’d swear by?
12. The sisters of the Occasional Knitters Society support Dora throughout the book (keeping the secret of Wrennie’s birth, taking care of Wrennie when Dora goes to Boston, meeting together for conversations and sisterhood.)
What makes their friendship so strong?
Are friendships like that possible today?
13. Dora is conflicted when Mrs. Ketch comes to her house for help. Given Dora’s past with Mrs. Ketch,
Why do you think she chose to assist her in helping her ‘lose’ her baby?
14. Maxine is very different from anyone Dora has ever met. Boston is very different from Scots Bay.
What do Maxine and Boston bring to Dora’s life?
Have you ever made a change in location or met someone who immediately changed your life?
15. In both the prologue and the epilogue, we see how life has changed in Scots Bay. Other towns in other places have changed over time, some gone forever.
Have we gained anything with these changes?
What have we lost?
16. After Dora and Hart become lovers, he talks of marriage and she refuses.
Why do you think she is so determined not to marry him?
17. In the epilogue Dora reflects on her past and what the birth house has meant to her and to the community. There is a sense of change, but also a sense of traditions preserved and lessons learned.
What thoughts will you take away from The Birth House?