Books 2013 – The Midwife of Hope River

When I was pregnant with our first child, Manfrengensen admitted to me that he could only hear the word “placenta” so many times. Based on that admission, I am going to go out on a limb here and tell you that The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harmon is a chick book. It’s about women’s issues, and some historical issues, but mostly there are a lot of birth stories in this novel about a plucky midwife during the Great Depression.


It’s the tale of Patience Murphy, a midwife in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia during the Great Depression. The story actually begins in 1929, just as the stock market crashes. Patience believes a baby is about to be stillborn, and it turns out to be alive, much, as it turns out, like Patience’s own heart. Patience has a long history, which she alludes to frequently; she’s lost a baby herself, a husband, and the love of her life. She believes herself to be on the run from the law because of some incident at a coal miners strike years ago, that also resulted in the death of her husband. From there she took up with a lesbian couple, who eventually broke up, and she stayed with the one who was a midwife, following in her footsteps. Because of her past, she feels she needs to keep a low profile, and her distance from the other people in the town. But in a small town where everybody knows everybody else and their business, this proves to be more difficult than Patience can handle. Slowly her life becomes intertwined in the lives of others, and in the end, that turns out not to be such a big deal.

Overall, this was another one of those books that was just good enough not to give up on. Patience was a little too plucky for my taste, but that’s just my thing. I hate characters to be overly resolute, at least I hate when an author repeatedly reminds us how determined the character (and for some reason it’s usually the heroine) can be. But again, that’s just me. And I guess Harmon was trying to show us how blind Patience could be to the facts because of her determination. For example, she gets involved with the vet who has the farm next to hers, and given that he seems to be the only single guy around, it’s obvious that they are made for each other, at least in a literary sense. I liked him a lot, Mr. Vet (a.k.a. Dr. Daniel Hester), but I wished we could see more from his point of view. Basically he’s around whenever Patience needs help, and they have this thing (SPOILER HERE) in the rain, just the one time. But then where does he go? He just seems to wander into the narrative from time to time. There’s no real chemistry between them, but you know he’s the love interest. Does he love her? Who knows? Is he shy? Doesn’t seem to be. But why does he come around? Just because Patience has a nice cow? I wish Harmon had just given us more to go on with him. Like I said, I like him, enough to want to know more.

Another point that was kind of repeated, and this is so minor that I hate to even bring it up, but it was something I noticed: every time Patience drinks tea, which is often, Harmon points out the kind of tea it is. Not a big deal, but I didn’t really care that it was camomile or peppermint, or any-kind-of-herbal-so-long-as-there’s-no-caffiene. I got it, no black tea for Patience. No Earl Grey, no English Breakfast, just the herbal. (Though I did thank that she wasn’t as specific as EL James, who noted repeatedly that Anastasia drank Twinnings.)

Harmon also does a lot of visiting events both in the history of labor organization (at least in the coal mining industry) and women’s rights, that make the story a little disjointed in their expositional style. I got the feeling that Harmon learned these stories as she researched the time period of the book, and put them in there almost as you would in a term paper. The actual story turns out to be kind of predictable, kind of like a Lifetime movie, not that there’s anything wrong with that. That’s not saying that it wasn’t an enjoyable read. It would make a good book club book, because again, there are lots of great issues to discuss along with the narrative. But as for broad appeal, I don’t think this novel has it.