Hannah Blau, a Jew born in Poland, in the late 19th century, trains as a midwife, survives pogroms, marries and migrates to America. There she has children, delivers children, builds a practice, struggles to keep her marriage to a socialist dreamer from disintegrating. I sit here bleary-eyed at the typewriter trying to figure out what about this book kept me up until four in the morning.
It isn't that the characters are particularly memorable. The heroine is drawn in almost paint-by-numbers-style -- the requisite proportions of beauty, intelligence, integrity, drive -- and the rest of the cast seems to have been ordered up from Actors' Equity: the retarded sister, the hot-headed brother, the long-suffering mother, even the beloved dead father. Hannah's lovers and husband are little more than symbols of possible paths: the nobleman-professor, the wealthy New Yorker. Nor is Courter's writing notably distinguished (although it's not bad -- simple and unpretentious, and I ran across only one gross gramatical error, something of a rarity for books nowadays). I guess what kept me up reading most of the night is that Courter, to use a time-tested phrase, knows how to tell a story. A novel, Henry James once explained, has a beginning, a middle and an end; to find a novelist who follows that advice is also something of a rarity nowadays.
It is easy to find fault with "The Midwife." Too much of the book is redolent of research rather than life. While that doesn't detract from the lagniappe of historical information "The Midwife" provides -- I now know a lot about female anatomy, the inlay on the parquet floors of Czarist palaces and the immigration and naturalization police of the United States at the turn of the century -- it does make for a tendency to skip over whole pages of the book in search of more plot. Frequently Courter does manage to create a scene that is alive and arresting -- Hannah's mother escaping the pogrom, a seduction at The Plaza when the hotel was, as New York was then, shining and new -- but she does not do so frequently enough to make "The Midwife" a noval that compels by something more than force of curiosity. Similarly, Courter's treatment of Hannah is tantalizingly frustrating.
At times her characterization rises beyond the mundane to allow us a glimpse of a complex woman reminiscent of the heroines who populated 19th-century novels, women who lived lives of hardship, physical or emotional, and who responded with grace under pressure. One endured in those days; one did not divorce or go to med school. To the extent that Courter has attempted to explore, from the perspective of nearly a century's distance, a feminine consciousness that still affects most women today, she cannot be said to have succeeded.
But if one wishes Courter had tried a little harder in the writing and the thinking and had more often risen above the level of a Jewish gothic romance, one welcomes the opportunity to recommend a, shall we call it, nice book. "The Midwife" is an old-fashioned novel, in its values and in its execution -- just a little bit of violence, nothing that takes more than a few paragraphs. You could give the book to your mother or your adolescent child with no fear of corrupting them, if, at the same time, no hope of elevating them either.