The Midwife’s Touch, by Sue Harrison

Review by Mack Hassler

We read just now of the latest honor for the writing of Sue Harrison: her induction into the UP Literary Hall of Fame.  So this fine new novel The Midwife’s Touch by an established award-winner for our literature comes at an auspicious time.  It is a great read that ranges from a rough community in the Ozark Mountains in the backwoods of Missouri where a Cherokee midwife and healer who, also, possesses a version of the “Royal Touch” to change the lives of people births an exciting heroine given the strange Native American name China Deliverance Creed (Indian languages create names to match events—her father wanted a son and shatters a precious piece of Chinaware before he dies in a drunken rage and so delivers China and her Mom from his Freudian viciousness).  The Cherokee midwife trains China as her apprentice and, also, passes on the mysterious witchery of the Royal Touch to her.  The time frame for this passionate tale of mystery and the supernatural is just prior to the Civil War and eventually moves to the Gilded Age following the war in New York City as China grows to use of her gifted “touch” as well as her nursing skills – some of the most vivid scenes in the story deal with the details and suffering in breech birthing midwifery.  This is a necessary agony that God gives us that runs parallel as a metaphor for the agonies in our country of the Civil War to transform us into a better Nation.  The whole tale ends with trust, love, as well as a modern version of the “supernatural touch” that by the end of the 18th century was considered pure chicanery and had been removed from any mention in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer by 1732.   But like some other horrors of earlier times, it had survived in the backwoods culture of the Ozarks along with the vicious predation in American History that it took us to rid ourselves of slavery.  China’s long story, with a more or less happy ending, is a gripping American story from our culture of the 19th century.

So the story ranges geographically and psychologically, and it includes unusual language capabilities from the Cherokee Nation.  Harrison has done a lot of linguistic research on Native American languages, and the Cherokee Nation was one of the first to develop a grammar as well as to have nearly total literacy.  Harrison seems to love this sort of research, and she also likes to play in her text with the backwoods language of superstition on  “haints” and “hags” and “Goomer Doctors”—a term for midwifery witchcraft.   In fact, Harrison has a section at the back of this novel that she labels “Author’s Notes” and opens with this comment, “For those readers who love research as much as I do, I include the following background notes to give you additional information that may enhance your reading experience.”  p. 308.   Harrison has set most of her earlier fiction in the eastern UP  and has done most of her language research on the Native Amerian languages near her home there — much like Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and his wife. In fact, she has expressed concern about this new work that it not be considered part of the UP literature that so many of us want to see nurtured.   To calm her anxieties and, of course, she does not mention him,  I can say that she reminds me in this book (especially when she puts her research notes at the back of the book) of Melville’s Moby Dick.  His massive notes on whaling and on the language of the sea are much more extensive than her notes.  But his masterpiece is clearly part of the New England Renaissance though it ranges in geography across the whole globe and textually from the Old Testament  to modern technology and science.  Harrison’s book ranges across the whole agony of 19th century American history as well as into ideas about witchcraft and the supernatural.  So I would suggest that we welcome this range of reference eagerly into the UP renaissance of writing.  The book is exciting to read.  China is a fascinating character, and the range of reference fits well into our sense of resonance and meaning.  It is a very good birth, indeed, emerging clearly “head first.”

The Midwife’s Touch,
by Sue Harrison
Open Road Integrated Media, New York,
333 pages, hardcover,

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