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This beautifully crafted novel is set in 1981 when a midwife, leading an otherwise uncomplicated and simple life with her husband and daughter in rural Vermont, is thrust into a legal, moral, political, and ethical nightmare. It evolves around a split second decision made in a life and death situation and the aftermath of that decision.
An experienced and respected midwife, Sibyl Danforth, attends a woman during a home birth. When she realizes that dangerous complications have set in, she tries to call for help in vain, as a severe ice storm has knocked out the phone lines. An attempt to drive the expectant mother to a hospital only results in the car being wedged into an icy snowbank, as travel conditions were impossible.
Trapped in this isolated home with a physically fragile, expectant mother in the throes of a labor that will not bear fruit, Sybil struggles to do the best that she can. Unfortunately, her best is just not good enough, given the complications that had set in, and the expectant mother appears to succumb to the ravages of a laborious childbirth.
Under the belief that the expectant mother had died, Sibyl performs an emergency caesarean section in an effort to save the unborn child. She successfully does so, presenting the stricken husband with an infant son. Yet, the next day, her assistant, Anne, who had been present throughout the ordeal, denounces Sibyl to the authorities, claiming that the expectant mother had, in fact, been alive, when Sibyl had commenced the caesarean. Consequently, Sibyl is charged with manslaughter, and the political winds blown by the traditional medical establishment, as well as that of the legal system, threaten to tear asunder all that she holds dear.
The story of this event, its aftermath, and the impact it had on many lives, is told through the eyes of Sibyl's daughter who had been a young teenager at the time of the incident, and through the pages of Sibyl's journal. The book takes the reader through a number of moral dilemmas for Sibyl, as well as for her daughter who is forced to come of age during this time of trial and tribulation for her family. Absorbing and often surprising, this sensitively wrought novel is a well nuanced literary gem from a gifted writer.
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on 8 November 2006
One of the best books I have read in years. Gripping throughout, accessible, and well written. reasonably short, so you do not need to invest a month of your life finding out what happens. Unexpected ending, but perfect. Read and enjoy!
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on 25 January 1999
As soon as I saw the cover of Midwives I was hooked. Bohjalian hit on a great idea for a novel and was blessed with a cover (literally)to die for! It promised to be a real page-turner...
How wrong could I be? Here was the potential for a great story sadly missed. Yes, the book enabled Bohjalian to air some interesting arguements about the pros and cons of home birth but added nothing new; the conclusion does little more than reinforce prevailing attitudes and - contrary to the hype - all twists seemed well signposted along the way.
This story should have been full of suspense and drama - the situation demanded it but the writing couldn't deliver.
As for the coming of age angle, the feelings of a fourteen year-old girl through the cool, intelligent eyes of a middle age obstetrician just didn't work for me I'm afraid.
I liked the moody, muddy setting, and I did want to know what happened in the end - sort of. A reasonably good result I suppost but in the final analysis, just not good enough.
(And by the way, wearing whimsical hippy skirts is not a prerequisite of home birth ...)
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on 12 June 2007
A very entertaining book, speaking of a series of difficult decisions to be taken in a split second and against a further series of negative circumstances surrounding the problematic birth of a baby, delivered by an experienced midwife during a snowy night in rural Vermont. When things deteriorate, Sibyl, the midwife, has to take a crucial decision which will then lead to a lawsuit.

This book certainly makes you think about how everything can go wrong if adverse fate interferes, but not only. It also gives rise to a crucial question regarding the choice between childbirth taking place in the serenity of a home or at a hospital, where everything would be "colder" but most risks could be kept at bay.

With all due respect, I must admit I was really impressed that the author of this book is a male, as everything is recounted with such feminine accuracy. Well done, truly well done. A book to be remembered. I still do and I've read it at least five years ago!
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on 11 August 2003
I thought this was a thought-provoking, exciting story - couldn't put it down. At the risk of sounding sexist, I was impressed that a man had written this. This is the first book I have read by this author and I am now about to search for his others.
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on 26 January 1999
On the chilly winter night of March 15, 1981, not even the most experienced driver was able to go onto the roads, and in a small house near the Vermont/Canadian border, something terrible was about to happen. Charlotte and Asa Bedford were going to have their second child that night, as home, with midwive Sibyl Danforth and her assistana Anne Austin. When Sibyl finally concludes that Chrolette has died from a stroke during her labor, she screams for Asa and Anne to bring her "the sharpest knife in the house." Remarkably enuogh, the baby lives through the emergency C-section performed by Sibyl, who has had no medical training. It wasn't until after the baby had been delivered and everyone in their own homes, that the question started to arise...was Charolette really dead when Sibyl performed the operation? The story is told my Sibyl's now grown daughter Connie, who was only 13 when her mother was tried for the murder of Charolette Bedford. Chris Bohjalian brings any reader of "Midwives: A Novel" into the story and makes them feel like they're living the life of one of the characters. Although not appropriate for all readers, this suspenseful novel will keep anyone who decides to read the book, up late at night until the last page of the book is read. I would recommend this book to anyone who is a dedicated reader and is 14 or older. Even thugh the point of some things is hard to understand, "Midwives" takes the reader into a place where they feel like they were actually in the room when the C-section was performed, and also in the courtroom when Sibyl was tried. As you read the book, you learn tom grow with the characters as they go through what it's like to experience the aftermath and process of life and death.
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on 4 March 1999
It's been about a month since I finished reading "Midwives" and unlike many of the other reviewers I have practically forgotten everything about the book. Where some have seen an absolutely heart-wrenching tale of family suffering and the bond that keeps them together in the face of hardship, I found only a marginal sense of anything. Where some found a tightly written courtroom drama that kept you guessing I found an ordinary, repetitious did-she, didn't she tale. Don't get me wrong, I think "Midwives" is an okay read but not a masterpiece as some would proclaim it. And to read some of the reviews that identify that a reader has proclaimed it as anything like "To Kill A Mockingbird" shows what people will do to get their name and place of work on the front or back cover of a book. Besides the fact that "Midwives" centres on a young female character and incorporates a court scene, "Midwives" is nothing like "To Kill A Mockingbird". How could one even consider relating a modern masterpiece to this mediocre tale? What sets them apart is the difference in the ability to accurately and sincerely convey the feelings of a young girl. Continually I had to remind myself that Connie was only in her early teens and not in her mid-twenties, and as for Sybil well how much more one-dimensional can you get? The characters in "Midwives" are nothing like those in "To Kill A Mockingbird" and unfortunately are what let this story down. Sure it is an interesting concept and one that probably should be investigated in this day and age - I can see that midwives might be threatened but I don't think that this is particularly a negative portrayal of midwifery - but it is just that it needs to be done with more fervor and a better sense of what needs to be said and what doesn't.
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on 20 June 1999
"Midwives" will not make you feel comfortable. It is a heart-wrenching book that explores the moral dilemmas of people who take great risks in life. Bohjalian writes well from a female perspective. The style, which uses journal entries, flashbacks and a first-person narrative from a child's viewpoint is a little tedious at times, but it doesn't detract from the power of the story. The question is, "Should a woman who is not medically trained deliver babies at home? Do the advantages of having a baby at home outweigh the disadvantages?" There is always the possibility that a delivery will go bad, and it is not always possible to get medical intervention in time. "Midwives" deals with guilt and how families interact under stress. It also addresses the question of whether or not it is ethical to take unnecessary risks with other people's lives. The reader must decide how culpable Sybil is. It is a question that remains in the reader's mind long after the last page is turned.
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on 10 January 1999
I enjoyed this book. The first person point of view is perfect. Connie is a very mature narrator who seems to be asked to handle an extremely scary series of events with the most emotional support coming from a teenage boyfriend. It seems that Sibyl who becomes so involved with the lives of others should be more aware of the needs of a young daughter. Bohjalian makes all the characters very realistic. Sibyl seems to be a strong woman who often focuses on what she wants to do and what is best for her. She doesn't seem to think about how the trial and her actions affect Connie's mental health. To the very end of the book, I have the feeling that Sibyl in many ways came to grips with the death of Charlotte more easily than Connie did. This book shows how actions of those close to us affect our own actions and values. I see more about the handling of stressful situations by individuals than I do about the question of giving birth at home or in a hospital setting.
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on 28 October 1998
I am so happy that Oprah chose this amazing novel for her book club! It's perfect for discussion. At heart, I suppose you could say this book is about a Vermont midwife on trial for manslaughter. Even though I loved that part of the story (and the way the author keeps you guessing until the very last page), it was really the way he drew his characters that made me love this novel. The midwife in question, Sybil Danforth, is beautifully drawn. Through her journals you come to know a skillful, passionate midwife, a loving mother and wife, and a supremely creative and curious woman. The story is narrated by Sybil's fourteen year old daughter, Connie, another marvel of a person! Connie is smart, keenly observant, and protective. Chris Bohjalian makes you feel like she is your own daughter. I could go on and on about the book, but I'll stop here and say get it for yourself right away and start reading!!
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