Set in the mountains of West Virginia in the early to mid 20th-century, The Midwife’s Tale is narrated by Elizabeth Whitely, the last in a long line of midwives. She is in love with a man who doesn’t (cannot?) reciprocate, and spends a decade of her life living in his house and raising his daughter, whom Elizabeth delivered. Eventually, the daughter begins to exhibit an amazing gift, which the family and community must come to grips with. The novel tells the story of how Elizabeth grapples with her loveless relationship, her love for her adopted daughter, and her connections to her mountain in West Virginia. Ultimately, it’s a story about creation–creating children, creating families, creating ourselves.
This is a very intimate story, where nothing huge happens. It’s the story of a life. West Virginia is beautifully drawn here. There’s a wonderful sense of time and place. You can feel the deep roots the characters have put down, and the sometimes messy and convoluted connections between them. At times there’s a certain emotional distance, for all the intimacy, but I think it works as part of Elizabeth’s character. She does keep her distance, in many ways, and keeps herself to herself. She’s believable in her struggles, in her wants and needs, in her desperate hopes. She comes across as complicated as the plot is simple, and it’s a nice combination.
Also check out the bibliography included in the back of the book. It has some great further reading suggestions, particularly nonfiction and memoir.
Ron Rash’s The Cove is quite similar to The Midwife’s Tale. The slightly haunting tone and the sense of place are much alike, as is the pre-WWI time period. The Cove is also about a woman struggling to find happiness in her relative isolation. I’d also suggest a favorite of mine, Bloodroot by Amy Greene. There’s the same touch of magical realism to it, and it isn’t quite as reflective in tone, but it’s got a wonderful style, an intricate plot, focuses on family ties, and is a beautiful depiction of life in Appalachia.
If you enjoyed the subject matter of midwifery most of all, and enjoy evocative historical fiction, you might want to try My Notorious Life by Kate Manning. It’s strikingly different in tone, but the issues the main character grapples with (love, sex, gender relations, women’s private selves, and women’s rights) are all there. The author does a fantastic job with historical detail, and it manages to feel like a book of the time (1860’s-1880’s in New York City, roughly) as well as a book about the time.
I’d suggest Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea by Morgan Callan Rogers to readers who enjoyed Elizabeth’s narrative voice and following her journey. Florine, the narrator, follows more or less the same character arc, right down to her relationships. Florine’s story is as evocative of the coast of Maine as Elizabeth’s is of Appalachia.
And, finally, here’s a crazy curveball of a readalike suggestion: Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett. Seriously. I know it sounds insane, but I thought of it and now I am powerless to unthink of it. Pratchett uses his books about the Witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg to explore myth, magic, gender relations, and humanism. As I said, a curveball, but those who liked the relationships between the women in The Midwife’s Tale might enjoy Pratchett’s take. Actually, try any of the Discworld books starring the Witches if you enjoy strong relationships and mentorships between generations of women.