In the early 1900s, a young girl lived with her mother at the base of Denniker's mountain in rural West Virginia. Her name was Elizabeth Whitely, and her mother was a midwife. Even before she reached her own childbearing age, Elizabeth became her mother's assistant, and finally a midwife in her own right, following in the footsteps of not just her mother, but her grandmother and great-grandmother. Elizabeth was also a bastard, never knowing her father. And she was in love, with Alvin Denniker, for whose family the mountain was named. But Alvin came home from a trip across the country with a Cuban bride, Ivy, crushing Elizabeth's hopes. Despite this, Elizabeth and Ivy became close, and Elizabeth helped her deliver her daughter, Lauren. When tragedy strikes Ivy and Alvin's family, Elizabeth steps in, raising Lauren as her own. But when Lauren demonstrates a "gift" that could turn her into a tent-revival freak show, Elizabeth has to make the difficult decision to send her away, losing not only the daughter she has come to love, but the man as well.
Laskas has given us in The Midwife's Tale a story about the deep connection between mothers and daughters. Rather than being sentimental, the relationships between mothers and daughter in this book are fraught with anger, resentment, and rebellion. Elizabeth's mother rebelled by going with the man who gave her Elizabeth, and then again by moving herself and Elizabeth to their own house on the mountain-something unheard of for an unmarried women in the early 20th century. Elizabeth's rebellions are similar-her decision not to become a midwife after learning about her mother's part in smothering unwanted babies, leaving her home to live with a man to whom she is not married. But each woman, despite the anger and resentment they sometimes feel, are deeply connected by love, family, and tradition. Elizabeth as a mother herself is devoted, continuing to live in less-than-ideal conditions with a man who won't marry her for the sake of being with Lauren. Lauren really ends up being the catalyst for a lot of change in Elizabeth's life-where she lives, who her man is, what her job is, and ultimately her own pregnancy.
While I don't mind magical realism in a novel, in this one it felt superfluous. When Lauren begins curing people, about midway through the book, it caused a strange dissonance for me between the story I thought I was reading and the one that Laskas apparently meant to write. I suppose that using Lauren's gift as the reason that Lauren has to be sent away from the mountain was one way to go, but even that rational felt tenuous to me. Frankly, I think that the story of a strong young woman finding her own way in the world, despite the sexism of the time period, would have been stronger if there has not been this attempt to explain at least some of her decisions away on her adoptive daughter's faith healing.