Author: Sam Thomas
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th Century / York / Midwife / Murder Mystery / Conspiracy / War / Thriller)
Publisher/Publication Date: Minotaur Books (1/8/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: Yes!
One-sentence summary: A midwife and her surprising assistant deal with civil war, mysterious assailants, a murder, and pregnant women in 17th century York.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: No. I feel terrible, but it reminds me of a homemade self pubbed thing -- I can't tell if the woman is animated or a photograph -- and it feels so dark. I'm squinting for detail.
First line: On the night I delivered Mercy Harris of a bastard child, the King's soldiers burned the city's suburbs and fell back within its walls to await the rebel assault.
Do... I love the robust section of webpages the author has dedicated to the historical midwife who inspired this novel?: YES. Inspired by a will beginning with “I, Bridget Hodgson, of the City of York, Midwife...”, Thomas has spun a wonderful novel, but I love seeing how much of Bridget was based on fact.
Do... I dislike the cover?: YES. But the author wrote a great post about working on the design, and he clearly likes it, and his comments kind of swayed me.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you enjoy historical fiction that tackles real people and the less sexy side of life.
Why did I get this book?: I'm a sucker for midwives!
Review: It's no secret I love historical fiction that doesn't focus on royals. I love seeing women's work portrayed realistically, and heroines who have some oomph without being anachronistic. Sam Thomas' The Midwife's Tale might have a kind of 'yawn' title, but the book is wonderful.
Set in York, 1644, in the middle of the first English Civil War, the story follows Lady Bridget Hodgson, a midwife of means. (This surprised me at first -- I didn't realize 'gentry' had jobs like this, but what do I know?) Her sister's maidservant arrives looking for work, and the young woman is shockingly adept at skills Bridget finds deeply alarming.
Any attention she might have to focus on Martha, however, is distracted when she learns her friend Esther has been arrested -- and sentenced to burn -- for the murder of her husband. Bridget is sure of Esther's innocence, Martha less so, and the two women embark on a campaign to solve the murder while avoiding getting murdered themselves. (War, plus unsavory figures from the past.)
Pretty much this whole book worked for me. It had a lovely mix of action, descriptive narrative that made for armchair time travel, and evocative characters who felt real. I need to say a little more about the characters: while I love me some feminists, I hate historical fiction heroines who are too feisty and flouncy for their own good. In Thomas' Bridget, I found a heroine who was strong and knew her place -- she was well-born and had money -- but who also had prejudices and biases of the time (she was wicked unsympathetic to unmarried pregnant women, for example.).
Thomas based his novel on a historical Bridget and her assistant Martha, which made the story all the more interesting to me. I'm no expert on 17th century York, so I can't say whether any historical details were messed with or inaccurate, but the world he presented to me was fascinating, alien, and compelling. I wouldn't want to live there, but I enjoyed this visit.
I read this book in about a day -- it has a marvelous first line that hooks you: 'On the night I delivered Mercy Harris of a bastard child, the King's soldiers burned the city's suburbs and fell back within its walls to await the rebel assault.' -- and every time I thought I ought to put the book down, I wanted to read just one more chapter. And then I finished, le sigh.
A wonderful historical fiction debut, and a great (what I believe is a) standalone novel. Hist fic fans will want this one, and those who think all historical fiction is heaving bosoms and insta-love should give this one a try -- it represents what I love best about the genre: someone's alien world and alien life made resonant and real.
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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Midwife's Tale to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 1/25.