In the The Midwife, Jolina Petersheim taps her own Mennonite heritage to consider the question of what exactly makes a woman a mother. Through the intertwined stories of Beth, Rhoda, and Amelia—whose lives intersect at Hopen Haus, a home for unwed mothers in Dry Hollow, Tennessee—Petersheim considers motherhood in all its forms.
The novel opens in 1990s Boston with a young woman named Beth, who regrets her decision as a pregnant teen to give her baby up for adoption. She agrees to serve as a gestational surrogate for her grad-school professor and his wife, but when a prenatal test indicates possible problems with the pregnancy and the parents want Beth to have an abortion, she runs away instead. Flash forward thirty years to present-day Dry Hollow, Tennessee, where Rhoda Mummau serves as head midwife at Hopen Haus, a Mennonite home for unwed mothers. When Amelia Walker arrives at Hopen Haus, pregnant and alone, many secrets, both past and present, are revealed.
The maternal past haunts virtually everyone in The Midwife. Beth’s mother abandoned her family when Beth was still a child. She has never been able to forgive her mother, nor can she forgive herself for her own choices—not only for giving up her baby for adoption but also for failing to inform the baby’s father of her pregnancy, robbing him of the chance to weigh in on the decision about his son’s future. When she agrees a few years later to be a gestational surrogate for her professor and his wife, it is clear that her motives are complicated by her own emotional needs. Meanwhile, Rhoda has the opportunity to serve as a mother figure to the frightened, abandoned girls at Hopen Haus, yet her own emotional scars keep her at a distance. And Amelia has warmer memories of her nanny than of her own mother: “Grandma Sarah tried her very best to make me feel like her real grandchild and not just her babysitting charge, even insisting that I call her ‘Grandma’ and not Miss Sarah like my mom wanted. And though I knew Grandma Sarah from the time I was born, she was getting paid to take care of me.”
Hopen Haus serves as the setting that allows the past and the present to merge, a place where healing can begin, though Petersheim makes it clear that it is not a magical place: evil lurks there just as it does everywhere else. Even so, at Hopen Haus there’s a daily reminder of the importance of faith. As midwife Fannie Gruber says, “You just must let faith overcome fear one minute, one hour, one day at a time.”
Jolina Petersheim’s first novel, The Outcast, was named one of the best books of 2013 by Library Journal. The Midwife is a worthy sophomore effort that reminds us of the value of forgiveness—and not least of the value of forgiving ourselves.
Faye Jones, dean of learning resources at Nashville State Community College, writes the Jolly Librarian blog for the college’s Mayfield Library. She earned her doctorate in nineteenth-century literature at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.