Patricia Harmon’s The Midwife of Hope River tells the story of Patience Murphy – a woman who finds herself working, reluctantly, as a midwife in 1930’s West Virginia. When we first meet Patience she is living in a lonely farmhouse, willed to her by her friend and mentor Mrs. Kelly, with just her cat and two dogs. Patience is new to midwifery and troubled by her lack of experience and incomplete training. Each birth is a learning experience and Patience carefully notes their details in a journal she keeps of the deliveries. Patience has yet to develop any strong ties in her town, and she misses the loss of her friend deeply.
As we learn more about Patience, it becomes apparent that she is hiding several secrets which contribute to her outsider status and unease in the community. She lives rather precariously on its fringes – even though she has attended to a number of women at their births, she has yet to establish a group of her own friends. That slowly starts to change when circumstances bring her a new roommate, and unexpected work swap with the town veterinarian expands her social outlook and her midwifery skills.
Harmon’s skill is in the ease and descriptiveness of her storytelling. The Midwife of Hope River is rich in the details of the period – the reader gets a full sense of life on a farm, the sweeping change of lifestyle in the depression era, the laws governing midwives and how they often had to circumvent them, the friction between midwives and doctors, and how they learned their craft through a combination of on the job learning and limited schooling. Though The Midwife of Hope River lacks dramatic tension, Patience’s origins and the sometimes harrowing experiences shaping her life and informing her choices, are of interest. Theyare slowly revealed as she makes a life for herself in the sleepy Appalachian town that has become home. Recommended.