Birth House a good read despite sideshow

This winter Canada Reads, the CBC contest that selects the must-read book of the year, took the country by storm. Fans followed it on the radio, live on the web and on Twitter. At any time during the debate as many as 3,000 people from around the world were logging in online comments.

This winter Canada Reads, the CBC contest that selects the must-read book of the year, took the country by storm. Fans followed it on the radio, live on the web and on Twitter. At any time during the debate as many as 3,000 people from around the world were logging in online comments.

In the end, five celebrity panellists picked a new book for Canada to read this year. The high-drama, Survivor-like format created something else for Canadians, a new villain.

The five celebrities on the show were: NHL enforcer Georges Laraque, defending The Bone Cage; CNN reporter Ali Velshi defending The Best Laid Plans; Sarah Quin of the band Tegan and Sarah backing Essex County; comedian Lorne Cardinal defending Unless; and home decorating guru Debbie Travis defending The Birth House.

Which celebrity was the bookish bully? You’re forgiven if you guessed on-ice enforcer Georges Laraque.

But from the moment the first round began, elegantly blonde Debbie Travis came across as irritable and combative.

In the debates, Travis repeatedly put down other authors and their books. She declared that she flipped through Essex County in the bath, and didn’t even bother to finish The Best Laid Plans.

“I got angry with it,” she said of the book. “I found it so unfunny I wanted to throw it away.”

Maybe because of this comment, The Best Laid Plans won the contest.

Travis probably didn’t intend to come across as harsh. Most likely, her no-nonsense, take-the-bull-by-its-horns style was a calculated, but ultimately, losing strategy.

And while Travis may lack a flair for debating, she did do one thing right: She picked a great book. In fact, if she had come across as a more gracious proponent, The Birth House by Ami McKay may indeed have won the entire contest.

The Birth House is set in small town Nova Scotia during a time of great change. The First World War rages in Europe. At home in Canada, advances in science, medicine and society are changing how people live.

For centuries women have sought the help of midwives and given birth at home. Now modern medicine is changing that practice.

An obstetrician moves to town, and vilifies old-fashioned midwifery. Dora Rare, a teenager training to become a midwife, finds herself at the centre of a controversy. Not unlike Travis in the Canada Reads debate, people are quick to turn against her.

The Birth House is an evocative, thought-provoking book. It weaves a compelling story, and wraps the reader in memorable images. It’s a bestseller in Canada, and deserves continued popularity.

So if like thousands of other Canadians, you’re planning on picking up the winner, The Best Laid Plans, don’t let the sideshow keep The Birth House off your list of novels to read this year.

Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton. allenh@telus.net