The Birth House by Ami McKay: An Archetypal Aspect

The novel, The Birth House by Ami Mckay, is a realistic fiction novel which introduces us to the main characters Dora Rare and Miss Babineau (or Miss B.) and their journeys to help the women in Scot’s Bay, Nova Scotia. Dora is the first daughter in the Rare family in many generations and seems to have a knack for midwifery. The novel is sort of a telling of Dora’s coming of age. So far in the book Dora has taken over the midwife duties from Miss B. and is battling against Dr. Thomas and his new maternity home. Dora also deals with problems in her arranged marriage to Archer and troubles conceiving her own child during the time of the First World War. Here you can read a summary of the novel, The Birth House by Ami McKay and learn more about Ami on her website . In this, the archetypal literary theory lens will be applied to the first half of the novel or part one, as the book is split into two parts.

Here is a video of the author, Ami McKay discussing her novel, The Birth House and its importance.

In archetypal literary theory, texts and their meaning can be influenced by culture and myths. Archetypal Literary Theory focuses on archetypal characters, motifs/patterns, symbols and the fundamental plot archetype. “An archetype, also known as universal symbol, may be a character, a theme, a symbol or even a setting” (Literary Devices – Archetype – Examples and Definition of Archetype 2015). More can be learned about the archetypal literary theory here or here.

There is many archetypal characters in the novel. Archetypal characters may include the well known hero, mother, child, mentor, trickster and more. The Great Mother is associated with fertility, life principle, protection, birth. In The Birth House, perhaps this is Mother Mary and the greater beings being prayed to in this story. The character of Mentor or Wise Old Man may appear when the hero needs them most and helps guide the hero. Miss B.  or Marie Babineau, a local midwife, mentors Dora as she learns more about midwifery and eventually takes over from Miss B. when Miss B. disappears/dies. Miss B. guides Dora by giving her advice on how to bring babies into the world, “Miss B. whispered in my ear, her voice calm and steady, ‘It’s just a corded birth. You gonna get him loose so he can breathe…Feel your fingers ’round the neck. Can you slip the cord over the baby’s head?’ ” (McKay, 66). Miss B. tells Dora what to do to deliver the baby. Miss B. also is a mentor in the way she looks after everyone in the community, watches over them and helps them when they are in times of need or sickness, and yet she expects nothing in return.

Another character  in The Birth House is the hero and  protagonist, Dora Rare. Dora is considered the hero as she brings forth many babies into this world and saves many babies from breech births and premature births. She fights for what she believes in, she expresses her true opinions about Dr. Thomas’ maternity home and her being against the war. She is an independent women in this time era (other than her marriage to her husband Archer) and does things for herself not to please others. The trickster may be a  character who seems bad but may have some positive aspects to them as well. In the novel, Dr. Thomas is considered the trickster. He breaks the rules of “God or nature” but has positive effects. He flips Scot’s Bay and their values and beliefs upside down, “We’re building a maternity home down the mountain, in Canning…A place where women can come and have their babies in a clean, sterile environment, with the finest obstetrical care.” (McKay, 30). His introduction of the maternity home has everyone in uproar; either for or against it. At the same time Dr. Thomas is a positive aspect and helps medically, as he brings new medical technology and brings forth babies as well.

I can compare the main protagonist on The Birth House, Dora Rare,  to the main protagonist of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, Nomi Nickel. I recently read Toew’s A Complicated Kindness, and in it Nomi struggles to conform and is not considered a hero like Dora. Although, both are independent females who stand up for what they believe in, Nomi is not a hero. Nomi does not save anyone or anything, whereas Dora saves people’s lives on some level. In thinking of comparing characters to Dora Rare, I can not think of any that measure up to her perseverance in that time era, in any book I have read recently.

Scots bay.jpg

Here is a photo of Scot’s Bay, Nova Scotia. 

In the novel, The Birth House by Ami McKay, there are many evident archetypal symbols portrayed. These include the moon, the garden, death, war, birth and creation. The moon is an archetypal symbol is fertility, femininity, and sometimes mystery. Within this novel the main theme is midwifery. There is lots of fertility and femininity throughout with the birth of many babies and women expressing their secrets of sex, how to get pregnant, how to be a good house wife, etc. The garden is also a symbol of fertility. This symbol is present in The Birth House as Miss B. has a garden and uses many herbs and other plants from her garden to help health people’s sickness, bring fertility, stop fertility so a woman will not become pregnant, or to help ease a woman’s courses (menstrual cycle).

 The moon.jpg
Here is the moon. A symbol of fertility and femininity.

In this novel there are also darker symbols such as death and war. Throughout the novel, the First World War develops and Dora’s eldest brothers Albert and Borden are sent off to fight in the war efforts. There is also a telling of the true event, the explosion in the Halifax harbor, and Dora travelling to the Halifax area to aid people in medical need from the explosion. Many people from the war and explosion died, creating the symbol of death. Birth and creation are other frequent symbols in this novel as well. Birth and creation go hand in hand. The birth or creation of a child is sometimes thought of as a miracle brought on by God and that is why these are important symbols to this novel so the majority of the novel deals with infertility, fertility and having babies.

During this novel there are also patterns or motifs. Patterns and motifs are common patterns that easily recognizable by readers. The patterns or motifs in this novel include creation or birth, and death and war. Creation is important as everything begins with creation. It is thought that creation is special because everything is or was brought to be created by God or other superior beings. In this novel, birth goes hand in hand with creation. Birth is alike to creation because it is babies being created. The characters of this book pray to God and Mother  Mary to help them conceive a child or give birth to a healthy baby. Death and war are a pattern as it is a pattern of destructiveness and killing. War causes innocent people to kill other innocent people. This novel is set during the First World War era, and through letters from her brothers, Dora expresses how she thinks war is wrong and the destructive actions it is causing.

Within the archetype literary theory there is a fundamental plot archetype journey. A typical archetypal journey consists of protagonist moves from innocence to experience, begins in a familiar environment, descent to danger, has a task such as battling monsters in underworld, and finally returning home for a reunion or marriage. Dora’s journey through the book also aligns similarly with the typically archetypal hero’s journey.  Dora the protagonist starts as an innocent teenager, never been kissed, to being experienced as a midwife, being married and having sexual relations. Dora’s story begins in a familiar environment of her hometown in Nova Scotia, Canada in “Scott’s bay”. Dora could be considered to take a slight descent to danger as she starts to have issues in  her relationship with Archer, forced to have sex, and is targeted by Dr. Thomas and her  Aunt Fran. So far, at the half way point in the novel, there is not a grand “return home”, but Dora is married by half way through the book.

As Dora, the main character takes her archetype journey through the book, later on I expect that Dora may have a grand “return home”. I predict this because her and her husband Archer continue to have problems and I think if this continues Dora may leave Archer and return home. Another idea, is that Dora’s brothers may have a grand “return home” or “reunion” from their war efforts, like the archetypal journey typically includes.

At this point in the novel there are many ideas and observations that I have found interesting. These include the concept of midwifery, the changes in the ways of life, healthcare, maternity and child birth, from then (early 1900’s) to present day, and the true event of the Halifax Explosion of the Halifax harbor in the book. Also, subjects such as war efforts and what war time was like back home, arranged marriage and indigenous people interest me as well.

Although I thoroughly enjoy the novel so far and I think the author, Ami McKay has done a fabulous job, I think there are some small improvements that could be made. This is very slight but includes her use of the French language. The author uses French, as it is used around the Eastern part of Canada and in Nova Scotia but, if the reader is unsure of what the french sayings mean they could miss an important aspect in the book.

Midwifery.jpg “While female relatives and neighbors clustered at her bedside to offer support and encouragement, most women were assisted in childbirth by a midwife. Most midwives were older women who relied on the practical experience they received in delivering many children. Skilled midwives were highly valued.” (History of American Women). 

I felt that these aspects the author chose to include are what drew me in as a reader personally as I like realistic fiction and war events and I have really liked learning about natural remedies/ wives tales or midwifery. These aspects, especially the indigenous people, also make this novel more familiar to me and I am able to connect to it as it is set in Canada with other Canadian aspects. I think these would be stylistic techniques that are used and I think they are effective in communicating the authors ideas because they are realistic. Another stylistic technique that is very effective is the pictures in the book that appear of new paper-type cut outs that explain some of the ideas talked about in the book. This makes it realistic also.

Works Cited

Archetypal Criticism. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 July 2017.

“Archetype – Examples and Definition of Archetype.” Literary Devices. N.p., 11 Mar. 2015. Web. 11 July 2017.

McKay, Ami. The Birth House a novel. Toronto. ON: Random House of Canada Limited , 2006. Print.

“The Birth House.” Ami McKay. N.p., 27 Aug. 2016. Web. 11 July 2017.

“Theme – Examples and Definition of Theme.” Literary Devices. N.p., 22 Apr. 2015. Web. 11 July 2017.

“The Moon.” Nine Planets. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 July 2017.

“Scots Bay (Scott’s Bay).” Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. N.p., 06 Mar. 2016. Web. 11 July 2017.

“Setting – Examples and Definition of Setting.” Literary Devices. N.p., 13 Mar. 2015. Web. 11 July 2017.

“Symbolism – Examples and Definition of Symbolism.” Literary Devices. N.p., 03 June 2015. Web. 11 July 2017.

“19th Century Midwives.” History of American Women. N.p., 02 Apr. 2017. Web. 12 July 2017.

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