One of the ongoing debates in literary and historical circles revolves around the question of the dividing line between fiction and history. Just this morning, I read another contribution: Between Fact and Fable: Historical Fiction or Non Fiction Novel? I must confess to my own wariness when historians include speculation in their histories, and am critical of historical fiction that does not display fidelity to the time that it is depicting. In reading this book, however, which was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, I find myself disconcerted by yet another variation on the conundrum. Is this a novel, or mainly a device upon which to hang the author’s research?
The subject matter interests me: I have always been interested in midwifery practices in the past, and the nature of women’s knowledge about their bodies. Set in Scots Bay in Nova Scotia (a real place) during and immediately after WWI, its main character is Dora Rare, the first female Rare in six generations. She is treated with suspicion by the people in the small town, and is drawn to Miss B. the town midwife, who is similarly ostracized (and feared?) by the locals. Out of love for Miss B. and drawn by her own interest, Dora becomes a trainee midwife. However, both Miss B. and Dora find their knowledge and skill questioned when Dr Thomas, an obstetrician in the employ of Farmers Assurance Company of King’s County, arrives in town. He talks up the advantages of health insurance, and deprecates the old folk ways of midwives, which are under threat not only from him but from legislation and regulations encouraging ‘safe’ hospital births.
Despite ‘catching’ many babies, Dora herself struggles to fall pregnant. Faced with no other real alternative and eager to have her own child she has married Archer Bigelow, a feckless man who enjoys the unfettered access to his wife in order to impregnate her. This marriage and her own maternity does not turn out the way she envisaged it would. Forced to leave Scots Bay, she travels to Boston where she meets liberated and unconventional women involved in the suffragette movement. There she develops an independence which helps her to return to fight, along with her friends from the ‘Occasional Knitting Society’, for the rights of Scots Bay women to give birth as they wish.
By its very nature, the author of historical fiction chooses a particular time and place in which to set the novel. By establishing her book in 1916-1920s, a range of fascinating historical situations opens up for Mackay. There’s the Canadian contribution to WWI; the Canadian homefront and attitudes towards men who did not enlist; the Spanish flu epidemic; women’s suffrage; the rise of the ‘girl’ and changing attitudes towards women and their sexuality and maternity. She has clearly researched all these things, but I found myself wondering if the plot was being driven too much by the search for scenarios in order to utilize all this research. While reading it, I don’t think that I ever lost the consciousness that I was reading a book and that there was an author pulling the strings – and for me, that’s not a good thing.
My rating: 6/10
Sourced from: CAE book groups