Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Midwife's Revolt (by Jodi Daynard)

           I freely confess it; this is exactly the kind of book I’m predisposed to like. Which means my recommendation should be served with a good pinch of salt as I’m biased. But if you happen to likewise have a soft spot for historical tales about women that aren’t primarily romances, you might find it as entertaining as I did.
            Set in the Revolutionary era, the midwife in revolt in this tale is one Lizzie Boylston of Cambridge, recently moved to Braintree (both next to Boston) with her young husband Jeb, who, within a few pages, proceeds to die in the opening skirmish of the brand new war. Lizzie and her neighbor Abigail Adams and several other women are left to fend for themselves in Braintree while the war flares and ebbs and creates hardships of every sort. Lizzie, a gifted midwife, saves babies and mothers and takes in stray young women in need of shelter, all of whom band together to outwit a set of British spies. Lizzie is courted by a Patriot but falls for a Tory, after which a number of loyalties and allegiances are tested and strained.
            At one point Lizzie convinces herself the only noble course is to dress as a man and go into Boston to visit a tavern where known conspirators congregate. This, easily, was my favorite part of the book, as Lizzie proved an utterly bumbling spy whom everyone immediately recognizes. I thought Ms. Daynard did a nice job of juxtaposing her heroine’s noble intentions with the reality of a situation far outside her wheelhouse. And she had a dang funny mustache.
             Overall I enjoyed the story and had the sense the historical details were pretty spot on—though it’s not an era I know much about. It reminded me of Cold Mountain in  bringing to life the harsh conditions on farms during war, where the women left behind did the work of the missing men on top of their own. And when the weather fails the crops, scarcities are compounded by wartime shortages.
            One of the more intriguing aspects of the novel is the exploration of the difficult allegiances during this first war between Britain and her colony, where neighbors and even families came down on different sides of the war. The novel depicts how the level of mistrust among people living in close proximity can induce as much—or more—strain than the physical hardships. Lizzie, a staunch Patriot from a family of Tories, forges a friendship with her neighbor Abigail Adams that serves to anchor the story in historical relevance, where the spy plot revolves around John Adams and his doings. I can’t say I found the characters fascinating but there were moments of excellent revelation.
            Thus if you’re not already tired of historical novels of the Revolution, I recommend this one as a good read.