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A Novel

Written by Chris BohjalianAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Chris Bohjalian



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On Sale: August 13, 2002
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-4000-3297-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf

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Read by Kate Burton
On Sale: July 03, 2007
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Synopsis

"Superbly crafted and astonishingly powerful. . . . It will thrill readers who cherish their worn copies of To Kill A Mockingbird." --People

With a suspense, lyricism, and moral complexity that recall To Kill a Mockingbird and Presumed Innocent, this compulsively readable novel explores what happens when a woman who has devoted herself to ushering life into the world finds herself charged with responsibility in a patient's tragic death.

The time is 1981, and Sibyl Danforth has been a dedicated midwife in the rural community of Reddington, Vermont, for fifteen years. But one treacherous winter night, in a house isolated by icy roads and failed telephone lines, Sibyl takes desperate measures to save a baby's life. She performs an emergency Caesarean section on its mother, who appears to have died in labor. But what if--as Sibyl's assistant later charges--the patient wasn't already dead, and it was Sibyl who inadvertently killed her?

As recounted by Sibyl's precocious fourteen-year-old daughter, Connie, the ensuing trial bears the earmarks of a witch hunt except for the fact that all its participants are acting from the highest motives--and the defendant increasingly appears to be guilty. As Sibyl Danforth faces the antagonism of the law, the hostility of traditional doctors, and the accusations of her own conscience, Midwives engages, moves, and transfixes us as only the very best novels ever do.

Excerpt

Throughout the long summer before my mother's trial began, and then during those crisp days in the fall when her life was paraded publicly before the county--her character lynched, her wisdom impugned--I overheard much more than my parents realized, and I understood more than they would have liked.

Through the register in the floor of my bedroom I could listen to the discussions my parents would have with my mother's attorney in the den late at night, after the adults had assumed I'd been sleeping for hours. If the three of them happened to be in the suite off the kitchen my mother used as her office and examining room, perhaps searching for an old document in her records or a patient's prenatal history, I would lie on the bathroom floor above them and listen as their words traveled up to me through the holes that had been cut for the water pipes to the sink. And while I never went so far as to lift the receiver of an upstairs telephone when I heard my mother speaking on the kitchen extension, often I stepped silently down the stairs until I could hear every word that she said. I must have listened to dozens of phone conversations this way--standing completely still on the bottom step, invisible from the kitchen because the phone cord stretched barely six feet--and by the time the trial began, I believe I could have reconstructed almost exactly what the lawyer, friend, or midwife was saying at the other end of the line.

I was always an avid parent watcher, but in those months surrounding the trial I became especially fanatic. I monitored their fights, and noted how the arguments grew nasty fast under pressure; I listened to them apologize, one of them often sobbing, and then I'd wait for the more muffled (but still decipherable) sounds they would make when they would climb into bed and make love. I caught the gist of their debates with doctors and lawyers, I understood why some witnesses would be more damning than others, I learned to hate people I'd never met and whose faces I'd never seen. The state's medical examiner. The state's attorney. An apparently expert midwife from Washington, D.C.

The morning the judge gave the jury its instructions and sent them away to decide my mother's fate, I overheard her attorney explain to my parents what he said was one of the great myths in litigation: You can tell what a jury has decided the moment they reenter the courtroom after their deliberations, by the way they look at the defendant. Or refuse to look at him. But don't believe it, he told them. It's just a myth.

I was fourteen years old that fall, however, and it sounded like more than a myth to me. It had that ring of truth to it that I heard in many wives'--and midwives'--tales, a core of common sense hardened firm by centuries of observation. Babies come when the moon is full. If the boiled potatoes burn, it'll rain before dark. A bushy caterpillar's a sign of a cold winter. Don't ever sugar till the river runs free.

My mother's attorney may not have believed the myth that he shared with my parents, but I sure did. It made sense to me. I had heard much over the past six months. I'd learned well which myths to take to my heart and which ones to discard.

And so when the jury filed into the courtroom, an apostolic procession of twelve, I studied their eyes. I watched to see whether they would look at my mother or whether they would look away. Sitting beside my father in the first row, sitting directly behind my mother and her attorney as I had every day for two weeks, I began to pray to myself, Please don't look at your shoes, please don't look at the judge. Don't look down or up or out the window. Please, please, look at me, look at my mother. Look at us, look here, look here, look here.

I'd watched the jurors for days, I'd seen them watch me. I'd counted beards, I'd noted wrinkles, I'd stared beyond reason and courtesy at the way the fellow who would become the foreman had sat with his arms folded across his chest, hiding the hand disfigured years earlier by a chain saw. He had a thumb but no fingers.

They walked in from the room adjacent to their twelve chairs and found their seats. Some of the women crossed their legs at their knees, one of the men rubbed his eyes and rocked his chair back for a brief second on its rear legs. Some scanned the far wall of the courtroom, some looked toward the exit sign above the front door as if they realized their ordeal was almost over and emancipation was at hand.

One, the elderly woman with white hair and a closet full of absolutely beautiful red flowered dresses, the woman who I was sure was a Lipponcott from Craftsbury, looked toward the table behind which the state's attorney and his deputy were sitting.

And that's when I broke down. I tried not to, but I could feel my eyes fill with tears, I could feel my shoulders beginning to quiver. I blinked, but a fourteen-year-old girl's eyelids are no match for the lament I had welling inside me. My cries were quiet at first, the sound of a mournful whisper, but they gathered fury fast. I have been told that I howled.

And while I am not proud of whatever hysteria I succumbed to that day in the courtroom, I am not ashamed of it either. If anyone should feel shame for whatever occurred that moment in a small courthouse in northeastern Vermont, in my mind it is the jury: Amidst my sobs and wails, people have said that I pleaded aloud, "Look at us! Oh, God, please, please look at us!" and still not one of the jurors would even glance in my mother's or my direction.
Chris Bohjalian|Author Q&A

About Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian - Midwives

Photo © Victoria Blewer

Chris Bohjalian is the critically acclaimed author of sixteen books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Sandcastle Girls, Skeletons at the Feast, The Double Bind, and Midwives. His novel Midwives was a number one New York Times bestseller and a selection of Oprah's Book Club. His work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages, and three of his novels have become movies (Secrets of Eden, Midwives, and Past the Bleachers). He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter. 

Visit him at www.chrisbohjalian.com or on Facebook.

Author Q&A

A Interview with Chris Bohjalian

Q: What made you choose to write a book about a midwife?

A: It wasn't so much midwifery that interested me as it was drama. About six months after my daughter was born--a perfectly fine hospital delivery--I was at a dinner party here in rural Vermont where I live, and I met the local lay midwife. She started teasing me very good-naturedly about the fact that my wife and I had traveled 32.4 miles to that hospital in the middle of the night to have our baby.

"If you had used me," she said, smiling, "you could have had your little girl at your home in Lincoln. Your bedroom, if you wanted. And you could have caught her."

I'd never heard the verb "catch" in the context of birth, and I grew fascinated. Then, as she told me little bits about her life--the sensations of delivering (or "catching") a baby in a bedroom, the wonderful drama that seems to attend almost any birth--I became hooked. Sitting beside me, I realized, was a woman who saw more sobbing men than any other professional I was likely to meet. After all, she was there from the moment a labor began until the baby arrived. She witnessed the absolutely momentous roller-coaster of emotion that seems to accompany every birth.

Of course I also learned in my research that midwives who specialize in home birth also shoulder enormous responsibility. They deliver babies far from the medical safety net we take for granted. Clearly they're extraordinary people, and clearly they're immensely gifted. But it is still a very special woman who can help a laboring mother remain focused and composed when the pain is intense and there's no epidural on the horizon. It's a rare woman indeed who--as one midwife who helped me with the book actually did--can successfully deliver a breech in a bedroom, with the knowledge that failure will result in head entrapment and death.

Q: Your book, MIDWIVES, is a dramatic story of a midwife who stands trial for manslaughter. Is this based upon a true story?

A: No. Fortunately, it is not.

But lay midwives are nevertheless beleaguered in many states. A season doesn't seem to go by when a lay midwife isn't on trial somewhere for simply doing what she has done fabulously well for years: Catch babies. Yet in the eyes of much of the medical community, she's "practicing medicine without a license," and subject to a prosecution that borders often on persecution.

Q: You give such descriptive details of the home-birthing process, did you actually work with a midwife to get such perspective?

A: I interviewed roughly 65 people while researching Midwives. I spent time with midwives and ob-gyns, prosecutors and defense attorneys, and literally dozens of people who had their babies at home.

Without exception, the midwives were wonderful: Forthcoming and honest, and rich with stories. Not only were they unfailingly patient (clearly a part of the job description), but they were very comfortable talking about the joys and risks that mark their profession.

Q: What reaction have you gotten from midwives about your book?

A: When the book was first published in hardcover, some midwives thought I was Satan. It's just that simple. There were some who thought I was the single worst thing to happen to birth since forceps.

And that's understandable: Few midwives are going to be wild about the notion of a novel in which a woman dies in a home birth, and is then tried for manslaughter.

But the midwives who read the book for me in manuscript form and who helped me with my research really loved it. They read it is a novel about the strength of one woman and one family, and they read it as a courtroom drama.

And once the book was a few months old, a great many midwives started backing the book, and--like me--really caring for my fictional midwife, Sibyl Danforth. Midwives is my fifth novel, and I've never loved a character as much as I loved Sibyl. (I'm working very hard to convince myself my infatuation is healthy.)

Moreover, I do not believe it will scare anyone away from home birth. When I was touring with the hardcover, a great many mothers came to my readings with their little babies born at home, and told me how the book had reinforced their faith in midwifery, home birth, and the love a midwife brings to the experience. They had really cherished the novel.

Q: After writing this book, would you and your wife consider using a midwife at the birth of your next child?

A: In a heartbeat. My wife and I would be very comfortable having a baby at home, or using one of the terrific nurse-midwives at the hospital.

Certainly we'd see an ob-gyn in the beginning as well, to make sure that Victoria (my wife) was a good candidate for a midwife-attended birth. But assuming it was a low-risk pregnancy, we'd be eager to call our neighbor--now friend and neighbor--who happens to be a midwife, and ask her to help us have our baby.

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, author biography, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Chris Bohjalian's Midwives.  We hope they will give you a number of new angles from which to consider this enthralling and provocative novel, a gripping combination of courtroom thriller, domestic drama, and novel of ideas that adds up to a lyrical and suspenseful work of art.

About the Guide

On an icy winter night of 1981 in the rustic community of Reddington, Vermont, seasoned midwife Sibyl Danforth is forced to make a life-or-death decision that will change her world forever. Trapped by the weather in an isolated farmhouse, cut off from the hospital or even the emergency squad, she takes desperate measures to save the life of a baby, performing a cesarean section on a woman she believes has died of a stroke during a long and painful labor. But what if the woman was still alive during the surgery? What if Sibyl herself inadvertently killed her? The hair-raising story of Charlotte Bedford's death and of the subsequent trial of Sibyl Danforth is hauntingly told by Sibyl's fourteen-year-old daughter Connie, now an obstetrician. She is remembering, and it is through her intelligent and watchful eyes that we witness the tragic effects of Charlotte's death and Sibyl's trial. And as Sibyl faces the antagonism of the law, the hostility of the medical establishment, and the nagging accusations of her own conscience, we are compelled to confront questions of human responsibility that are fundamental to our society. As with all of the very best novels, Midwives provides no easy answers; rather, it consistently engages, moves, and challenges our ways of thinking.

About the Author

Chris Bohjalian is the author of four previous novels, including Water Witches and Past the Bleachers, which became a Hallmark Hall of Fame film. He is a contributor to numerous publications, including Reader's Digest, Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, and Burlington Free Press, for which he has been a columnist since 1992. He lives in Lincoln, Vermont, with his wife, photographer Victoria Blewer, and their daughter, Grace.

Discussion Guides

1. By the time Sibyl was of college age, her daughter says, "She had already developed what was then a popular distaste for most traditional or institutional authority" [p. 31]. How does Sibyl continue to maintain an "anti-establishment" stance throughout her life? How does the legacy of the sixties continue to shape the lives, and the self-images, of Sibyl, Rand, and Stephen?

2. "My mother never came quickly or lightly to the decision that one of her patients should go to a hospital" [p. 62]. Why not? What does the act of home birth symbolize for Sibyl, her patients, and the other midwives?

3. Does Anne Austin do the right thing by calling Dr. Hewitt, or does she act out of hostility towards Sibyl? Why doesn't she call Sibyl before talking to the doctor? Should she have done so?

4. Sibyl notes that bankers, lawyers, doctors, and architects choose to have babies at the hospital rather than at home. What point is she trying to make?

5. Tom compares doctors with "pack animals" [p. 95]. Stephen, at the trial, says, "The whole idea that a midwife can do what they do--and do it better--drives some of them crazy, and so they're persecuting my client" [p. 232]. Are these accusations fair, or unfair, to doctors?

6. After Charlotte's death, Tom says to Connie, "So, they're going to have to blame someone" [p. 101]. Do you think this is true? Is Sibyl blamed because people must blame someone? Should someone be held accountable for every death of this sort, or can some be simply attributed to tragic accident?

7. Sibyl carries Pitocin and Ergotrate in case of emergencies during labor. For a lay practitioner to do so is illegal, "but," as Connie states, "every midwife carried them. My mother wasn't unique" [p. 64]. How does this affect midwifery's position as a natural way of delivery? Does the fact that every midwife does so make it all right, or should use of these drugs be limited, as the law prescribes, to licensed doctors and nurses?

8. How alike, basically, are Rand and Sibyl? Has Rand changed more or less than Sibyl from their hippie days? How compatible is he with Sibyl and what she stands for? Do you see their marriage as essentially happy?

9. Do you think that the relationship that develops between Sibyl and Stephen is simply a flirtation, or is it more than a flirtation? What role do Rand's behavior and attitude during the trial play in fostering this relationship?

10. Some of the male and female reporters who cover Sibyl's trial try to avert their eyes from the breasts of the many nursing mothers in the courtroom [p. 213]. Does this reflect to you an essential discomfort with the human body in our culture? Might such a discomfort explain society's disapproval of people like Sibyl Danforth?

11. In the final analysis, do you think that Sibyl behaves irresponsibly during Veil Bedford's birth? Should she, as the prosecution claims, have been more alert to potential weather problems and to Charlotte's health history? Is she precipitate in performing the cesarean section without checking Charlotte's life signs a final time after Asa and Anne returned with the knife, or is it imperative that she rush in order to save the child's life?

12. Do you believe that Connie makes the right choice in shielding her mother from the law? "My mother's conviction would not bring back Charlotte Bedford. It would merely destroy a second woman," Connie reflects [p. 295]. What about the principle involved? Should Sibyl in fact have been allowed to continue to practice as a midwife?

13. "My choice of profession was neither an indictment of my mother's profession nor a slap at her persecutors," says Connie [p. 143]. Is this true? What does Connie mean when she says that "atonement," "reparation," "compensation," and "justice" entered into her decision to become an obstetrician [p. 303]?

14. Did Sibyl's final diary entry [pp. 309-310] change any of the opinions you formed during the course of reading about the trial? If you had any firm ideas about home versus hospital birth, have they been changed by reading this book? Do you think that lay midwives should be allowed to practice? Would you trust yourself to the care of a midwife, or would you go to a hospital for delivery by a doctor?

15. Connie quotes physicians as saying: "But we've lost our collective memory of the fact that although labor is natural, it's dangerous. Let's face it, there was a time when women and babies died all the time in labor. . . . A hospital is like an infant car seat: If something unexpected should occur and there's some kind of collision, we have the tools to pull the baby out of the oven" [p. 18]. The midwives argue: "What's the price of attempting to eliminate chance, or trying to better the odds? A sterile little world with bright hospital lights?" [p. 123]. By which of the two points of view do you find yourself persuaded?


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