I’ve just finished The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman. I read hundreds of books in a year. I enjoy a lot of them, and finish others only because I have an obsession about finishing any book I start. Rarely am I so impressed that I feel compelled to share it.
That is exactly how I felt when I finished Ms. Harman’s story.
Her website describes the book as follows:
As a midwife working in the hardscrabble conditions of Appalachia during the Depression, Patience Murphy’s only solace is her gift: the chance to escort mothers through the challenges of childbirth. Just beginning, she takes on the jobs no one else wants: those most in need–and least likely to pay. Patience is willing to do what it takes to fulfill her mentor’s wishes, but starting a midwife practice means gaining trust, and Patience’s secrets are too fragile to let anyone in.
A stirring piece of Americana, The Midwife of Hope River beats with authenticity as Patience faces seemingly insurmountable conditions: disease, poverty, and prejudices threaten at every turn. From the dangerous mines of West Virginia to the terrifying attentions of the Ku Klux Klan, Patience must strive to bring new light, and life, into an otherwise cruel world.
It’s a book that would appeal to a fairly wide audience, although probably less so to men. But male or female, anyone who aspires to write a novel that captures the reader should reserve the time to read this one. Aside from being a compelling story that made me want to read on, it was the way she wove description into every paragraph that drew me in and included me in the experiences of this midwife and all of the characters her descriptive skill brought to life like I was there. The description immerses us not only in the immediate surroundings and characters of the story, but bit by bit shares her life before she “became” Patience Murphy, when she was Elizabeth Snyder.
Here is an example:
“Katherine. . .” I straighten my rumpled flowered shift, embarrassed by the impropriety of sleeping with a patient, and put on my glasses. “Let’s go to the toilet. I’ll listen for a heartbeat again after you’ve relieved yourself, but don’t get your hopes up. Your baby’s spirit has gone back to Heaven.” I talk like this, as if I’m a believer, but in truth I haven’t been to church, except for funerals and weddings, since my husband, Ruben, died on Blair Mountain along with 150 other union men. This was back in ’21, a bad time.”
Or this one, turning a simple scene into a 3-D movie:
“It’s three miles on rocky dirt roads to King Coal, and we move right along, although burros are not much for hurrying. Three vehicles overtake us, and we have to get down into the ditch while they pass: a Pontiac roadster, a Ford Model T, and a John Deere tractor, moving just a little faster than we are….
At last we arrive at the mining village. The King Coal camp is a ramshackle community set up along King Lick. Though the camp has been here only five years, the water in the creek is already brown and the rocks have turned yellow from the mine’s acid runoff.”
You can see and feel the poverty and hard life.
Other descriptions are more uplifting, but the story really is about struggles and triumphs that you live and feel right along with the main character.
Even in and around dialogue – maybe even especially around dialogue, to avoid the “talking heads” syndrome, the physical and behavioral surroundings can bring a scene to life or leave the reader patting her yawning mouth.
Ms. Harman inspires me to take another look at my writing, to draw and color the scenes surrounding my characters and their stories instead of relying too heavily on the reader’s imagination.