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Review: Once a Midwife, by Patricia Harman
Morrow, 2018. 487 pp. $17

Patience Hester, midwife of Liberty, West Virginia, senses the state of the world in November 1941 with terrible foreboding. Her husband, Daniel, a veterinarian and veteran of the First World War, has said that if war comes again to the United States, he will refuse to go. As healers, the Hesters’ moral predicament offers a compelling premise; add Patience’s past as a political activist for liberal causes and her distaste for Nazi Germany, and Harman has drawn her battle lines.

I wish I could tell you that Once a Midwife takes off from this promising platform, delivering a meaningful narrative that explores conscience and convenience. Unfortunately, directly or by implication, the novel lets just about everyone off the hook, which results in a moral tale lacking the requisite compass. Evil boils away until the dregs belong only to the local KKK or the SS assassins of Eastern European killing fields. Racism? Not here; the African-American characters may receive a cold look or two, but most everyone else is the soul of tolerance. Somehow, the Holocaust has become public knowledge in rural West Virginia a year before anywhere else, and, even more miraculously, nobody in Liberty voices prejudice against Jews, even at a meeting of America First, an organization notorious for anti-Semitism. Consequently, the bad guys are the few, irredeemable Them, whereas the good guys are Us. And since everyone’s the same underneath, why can’t we all live in peace and harmony?

Asking that all-important question in December 1941 might be a bit late, but, in any case, the people in this novel aren’t flexible enough to grapple with it. Patience tells the reader and other characters what she feels, referring to facts from her past or current events, announcements that turn a potential person into a headline. Daniel’s even less convincing, for he sounds alternately like a whiny adolescent and a holier-than-thou prophet. Rather than show why he’s a pacifist or have him struggle with his beliefs, Harman has him recite potted history that could have come from a seventh-grade textbook; when pressed, he tells generic stories about his war service. So he’s a talking head who’s got glib, half-baked answers for everything, not a deep-thinking man of conscience. But he’s not alone, for characters in Once a Midwife seldom talk to each other. They talk at each other, usually to dump information—and boy, are they misinformed.

I firmly believe that historical novelists should have poetic license, and that the writing and presentation matter ten times more than research. Still, I need to believe that the author has some sense of what facts she’s changing and why, whereas here, I question Harman’s grasp of the era, its events, and especially its timeline. The war seems to serve merely as a cauldron to dish up convenient plot points. Meanwhile, the premise contains enough untapped conflict to fill a novel by itself.

For instance, why doesn’t Patience — or anyone — ask Daniel whether, as a veterinarian serving a farm population, he’d try to get a deferment for an exempt profession, especially given his age? He might not listen, because he refuses even to register for the draft, but so much the better—another point of conflict with his beleaguered, overwhelmed wife, more room for him to show (not explain) his principles. Also, Daniel’s situation might have changed when, a year after Pearl Harbor, Selective Service lowered the age of draft liability to thirty-eight, a fact that the narrative doesn’t mention but a circumstance that offers another possible iteration of the same conflict.

But these moral complexities, which should be the novel’s strength, wind up resolving themselves. At several points, Patience wonders whether her husband’s a weakling or has taken dubious positions, for which she hates him for short bursts, invariably snapping out of it. It’s as though the narrative prevents the characters from getting too upset with one another—a common flaw in feel-good novels, but unfortunately, Harman pushes this into the realm of cluelessness. She evokes the hurtful, ignorant trope that divides Germany into a basically decent but cowed majority and a tiny sliver guilty of all evil, a morally simplistic position that denies history and insults the victims.

Worse, Harman underlines the (studiously low-level) bigotry, rampant jingoism, small-mindedness, and government propaganda visible in Liberty; weighs that against Axis lies and brutalities; and implies that it’s a wash. I must confess I nearly lost it when a group of German POWs recently arrived to West Virginia sing a Christmas carol and in this way prove their basic humanity to Patience’s satisfaction. With little hesitation–and even less thought to what they might have done–she gives a pass to men who’ve bloodied and terrorized half of Europe. Where’s the moral sense in that?

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.