Finding the Truth in Gretchen Moran Laskas’s The Midwife’s Tale
The prologue to Gretchen Moran Laskas’s novel, The Midwife’s Tale, begins with her narrator protagonist, Elizabeth, telling readers, “Mama always said that most of being a good midwife was in knowing the family history. Not just the birthing story of any given woman--although that was a good thing to keep in mind--but the whole history.” Assuming the “whole history” is a thing possible to know in the first place, a dubious aim in itself, Moran Laskas’s novel ends up reading as a sort of family history: at times exultant, heartbreaking, occasionally comic, and more than once bone-chillingly grim.
Beginning at the turn of the century and ending roughly forty years later as the Depression enters its last stages, Laskas’s novel follows the passions, failures, and triumphs of sometimes-midwife Elizabeth and the small group of mountain folk and family she shares her life with along the banks of Kettle Creek. Feeding her readers a painfully, if beautifully, detailed fare of the arduous lives endured by turn-of-the-century Appalachians, Moran Laskas serves up a novel that journeys between sorrow and triumph without ever indulging in sentimentality as her characters try to survive poverty, mountain life, a world war, an influenza epidemic, and the Depression. With image-rich descriptions of Appalachia’s natural landscape, Moran Laskas shares the stirring, at times comic, rural language of Elizabeth and the novel’s other midwives, Elizabeth’s mother and maternal grandmother, to construct a believable, if sometimes haunting world that periodically resembles a feminized utopia as much as it does an historical account of life in the mountains.
Although Moran Laskas’s primary characters are either midwives or involved with the practice of midwifery, the act of storytelling is also a constant focus of the novel. Whether articulated through intentionally shared stories and words, the ubiquitous mountain gossip, family mythology handed down like verbal heirlooms from generations past, or even the narratives involuntarily conveyed by the human form as it grows, degenerates, heals or conceives life, the sharing of stories is never far from the novel’s subject matter or its implied themes. Furthermore, this complicated significance ascribed to storytelling underscores another important facet of the novel--the power of and solidarity among its women characters. From the novel’s point of view, storytelling, in its barest form, can save a woman’s life. We quickly learn that, not unlike a hospital chart filled with family history and personal medical data, the “stories” of a woman’s female ancestors and their birthing experiences, not to mention what biological particularities are known about the woman in labor, are the most important tools a midwife can possess when “catching a baby.” But in addition to the fact that these stories are listened to and conveyed by a world of women, the sole...