Friday, February 01, 2013

Book review: The Midwife's Tale, by Sam Thomas

Historian Sam Thomas’s debut novel introduces an appealing pair of female sleuths operating within a creatively original setting: York, England, during the country’s civil war. It’s 1644, and Parliamentary rebels are besieging the city, but within its walls, life carries on as usual.

Lady Bridget Hodgson, one of York’s official midwives, must continue with her duties while finding a murderer. One of her close friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of poisoning her husband and will be burned at the stake unless Bridget pulls out all the stops to clear her.

The atmosphere feels tense in this swiftly-paced mystery, since it might not even matter if she succeeds. Although other suspects abound – Stephen Cooper had many enemies – he held Puritan sympathies, and the Lord Mayor knows it wouldn’t look good to let a Parliamentary supporter’s wife go free.

This makes for a great setting for a mystery. Bridget knows that in these troubled times, there’s no guarantee justice will be served. She has help, though, from a servant who turns up on her doorstep. Martha Hawkins comes with a lot of baggage, but her street-smarts and ingenuity come in handy, and the women form a solid partnership.

Although she’s only 30, Bridget is a formidable presence. A twice-widowed gentlewoman, she has the authority that comes with her position and a self-confidence derived from her rank. She reveals a vulnerable side, too, since she suffers the pain of having lost two children herself.

Bridget’s methods can be shockingly aggressive, but it’s all part of her job. A midwife’s tasks don’t begin or end in the birthing chamber, and this eye-opening look at their role is one of the book’s most intriguing aspects. Bridget must force unmarried pregnant women to name their children’s fathers since the city doesn’t want to pay for their bastards. She advocates for women, too, participating in both christenings and funerals at the sad (and sadly frequent) times when the babies fail to thrive. It’s also captivating to observe the network formed within the city – each woman has “gossips” who share her secrets and support her at times of need – and the havoc created when one of the links is broken.

As Bridget and Martha sort through a growing number of suspects and motives for the killing, both political and personal, the layout of bustling York comes into sharp focus, from the shadows of the Minster to its creepy alleyways to the wards where its rich leaders reside. The River Ouse flows steadily along throughout, full of the stink of the city’s waste.

There are some inconsistencies with forms of address (she is alternately called Lady Bridget and Lady Hodgson), but regardless, she’s a heroine well worth following here and on future adventures. The Midwife’s Tale is an accomplished and entertaining debut from a talented writer. Enhancing the fictional story is the fact that Bridget is based on a real person. For readers interested in learning more, the author’s website takes a detailed and spoiler-free look at the historical woman’s life and background.

The Midwife's Tale was published by Minotaur in January (hb, $24.99/C$28.99, 310pp).  This is the final day for the author's blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

12 comments:

  1. Anonymous4:08 PM

    Read the first few pages on Amazon - looked good, except as a York born writer, I spotted the first mistake with a few paragraphs. 'The spires of York Minster' - as far as I'm aware, the Minster never had a spire. Twin west towers, yes, and a central tower, but no spire. But maybe I'm just peeved because he's beaten me to it with a Civil War novel set in York!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      I've spent a total of four hours in York in my life, so this isn't from memory, obviously! But the multiple conical structures jutting up from the two west towers - are those not spires? The effect isn't as dramatic as is the case with Salisbury, with its one very tall spire towering over the area, but if that's not what they are, I don't know what the terminology is to describe them. (I'm not a cathedral expert, but googling "spires of York Minster" brings up numerous references to them.)

      I don't know of other Civil War novels set in York; there's room for more, in my opinion!

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  2. Great review, Sarah. One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was all the information about midwifery it contained. I found it absolutely fascinating, especially the part about midwives having to force expectant mothers to name their baby's father. I can't wait for the next novel in this series. Bridget and Martha are fabulous characters.

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    1. That was my favorite part of the book - midwives had a much bigger job than I'd thought (and their work is difficult enough without those other responsibilities!).

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  3. I've been curious about this one, thanks for the lovely review :)

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    1. Thanks! There have been a lot of reviews for it lately, on the tour and elsewhere, which should give readers a good idea on whether the book might be something they want.

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  4. Sounds like a wonderful novel. I will tbr it for the Historical Fiction Challenge.

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    1. Hope you enjoy it if you pick it up. I'm following along with the challenge but not participating. Since all I cover is historical novels, it's not so much a challenge for me!

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  5. I thought it was a very interesting novel, with great insights on the world of midwives at the time. here is my review: http://wordsandpeace.com/2013/01/23/book-review-and-giveaway-the-midwifes-tale/

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    1. Enjoyed your review and your thoughts about the "gossips." Women didn't have much political power, but they had a way of influencing events in the city nonetheless.

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  6. I have had my eye on this book for a few weeks. Sounds like something I would really enjoy. Nice review!

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    1. Thanks for commenting! If you enjoy reading about the daily lives of women in historical times, it's a good one.

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