Patricia Harman knows a thing or two about being a midwife. Harman spent more than three decades in the industry, and now has a flourishing career writing about those experiences both in her memoirs, Arms Wide Open and The Blue Cotton Gown, and in her novels, The Midwife of Hope River and her newest: The Reluctant Midwife. In honor of the release of her latest novel, Harman chatted with Bookish about her tv-watching habits, and the ways in which midwives are heroes.
When I go on book tour, one of the first questions I’m asked is, “So, have you seen the TV series on PBS, Call the Midwife?”
My answer is… YES! I love that show and the fourth season just started. How nice with my new book The Reluctant Midwife, just out too.
The funny thing is that, in my opinion, the memoirs the TV show is based on pale in comparison. What makes the TV drama (set in the 1950s) so much better than the book is the rich visual detail, the background music, and the narrator’s voice (Vanessa Redgrave) summing up the lessons that the midwives learn in their work with the poor women and their families of the East Dock in London.
As a real-life midwife for over thirty years, people think I am qualified to make a judgment on the reality of birth scenes and I do watch them very carefully for the details.
You know how in some movies the births seem so fake? Like the woman pushes out a three-month-old baby that someone has just wiped oil and ketchup on? The kid has muscle tone and is almost talking? That’s the cool thing. In Call the Midwife the babies truly are less than a week old.
Then, fans often ask: When is your book going to be made into a movie or a TV series? The answer is… someday. Like the aforementioned memoir, my first novel The Midwife of Hope River and the follow-up, The Reluctant Midwife, take place in the past. Only my novels are set during the Great Depression.
I chose the 1930s because I thought readers could relate, because we are going through the Great Recession right now. We have all seen foreclosures and known someone who has lost a job. We have watched companies fold, people using their savings to keep food on the table, and families maxing out their credit to keep the heat on.
The people of the Hope River Valley, the fictional town where I set my books, were facing all this and more. In the 1930s in the US, there were no social services, no health insurance, no food stamps. There were food lines, but how hard that must have been, for proud people to stand waiting with a tin cup. Can you picture yourself there? Think it couldn’t happen? So did they.
In the midst of all this, babies were still conceived and then born. In Liberty, West Virginia, the only help came from the midwives, who were sometimes skilled, sometimes reluctant, but always compassionate. In the books, babies are born on the floor of a homeless woman’s tent, in a car, in the bathtub by accident, almost in a closet, and sometimes in a bed.
In those days, home birth wasn’t a radical alternative. It’s just what one did. Midwives had few tools but their hands and a bottle of herbal tincture to help stop heavy bleeding. A doctor was two hours away on gravel or dirt roads and there were no ambulances or helicopters to get a patient to a hospital quickly.
What makes the fictional midwives of Hope River so remarkable is that they did this work almost for free and they did it out of love for the women of their valley. As Patience, the lead midwife once said when called out in an ice storm. “I have to go. A life is at stake, maybe two!”
These books are about strong women who are sometimes reluctant, but always courageous. The midwives of the Hope River are warriors and represent what is brave and true in all of us.
Patricia Harman, CNM, got her start as a lay midwife on rural communes and went on to become a nurse-midwife on the faculties of Ohio State University, Case Western Reserve University, and West Virginia University. She is the author of two acclaimed memoirs and the bestselling novel The Midwife of Hope River. She has three sons and lives near Morgantown, West Virginia.