Hannah, Delivered by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, Köehler Books, 316 pages
Hannah, Delivered is an imperfect book with loads of potential, if only an editor had coaxed it into the wonderful novel it could have been. As is, it’s a novel that reads too much like a memoir — the kind that struggles with pacing, with erratic decisions about when to show the action and when to summarize what happened. The conceit set out in the first chapter — of an experienced midwife telling a young midwife about her early days in the profession — doesn’t ultimately serve any purpose, since neither the teller nor the phantom listener has anything at stake in the conversation. The prose quality is uneven, and there is an edge of didacticism that subverts the book’s more literary charms.
All that said, Hannah, Delivered is a page-turner. The subject matter — pregnancy and childbirth — is inherently dramatic. Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew has found a topic with built-in interest: regardless of whether or not you have children, want children, or are averse to the whole idea of parenthood, no one escapes being born.
Hannah Larson works in reception at a hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. The daughter of a Lutheran minister, she is in her early 30s and engaged to a handsome but bland man. On a busy night at the hospital, she is pulled in to assist with a birth. Andrew gives Hannah’s life prior to getting the baby-catching bug short shrift; very soon, we are with Hannah in Sangre de Cristo, New Mexico — a thinly fictionalized version of Taos — at Birth House, embarking on a two-year midwifery apprenticeship, which she sees as her calling. The story takes place in the not-too-distant past, before midwifery and home births were legal in Minnesota, to which Hannah returns after her training. One of the major plot twists hinges on that illegality, as well as the potential complications of a breech birth. The story is also about Hannah growing as a person — opening her heart and mind to people of different backgrounds and temperaments. Hannah is quite provincial in her worldview at first, and while Andrew’s attempts at showing how Hannah changes into someone much more accepting reflect the truth of the character, the first-person point of view renders them clumsy and a little self-congratulatory. A third-person point of view would have allowed the reader to get to know Hannah more honestly, while still being able to view the people she meets through her eyes.
Stuart, a gay man training to be a midwife at Birth House, lends conflict to the story by virtue of his gender. Some people take offense at the idea of a man becoming a midwife, because home birth is seen as the province of women. It’s a provocative story line, but we only experience it filtered through Hannah and her retelling of what Stuart has to say about it. Hannah and Stuart become good friends, but he embodies some silly stereotypes that, although loving in their application, might have been avoided or rounded out if we were given a peek into his mind. Several other characters also beg for fleshing out in this manner, among them Hannah’s father, the widowed minister; Dr. Jorgenson, the elderly obstetrician who presided over Hannah’s birth; and Melinda, the strong-willed woman for whom Hannah risks arrest to oversee her labor. There is much more going on here than midwifery, though it’s an interesting and important topic that Andrews knows how to write about with medical accuracy and resonant detail. But the potential for a truly fantastic literary novel is readily apparent, and its lack of development is deflating throughout the reading experience.
The novel’s subplot revolves around Hannah learning family secrets about her own birth and coming to terms with how she was raised. The secrets are big and the lifelong ramifications huge, and though this is interesting, it rings of self-help or therapy fiction — another pitfall that might have been avoided with a third-person narration. Taking the narrative outside of one speaker with one point of view means an authorial voice can make pronouncements about the world or human nature. In this case, Hannah is left to reveal her own epiphanies to the reader, which sometimes feels inelegant. Additionally, knowing how her father felt about these secrets, not filtered through Hannah, would have deepened the meaning of those epiphanies for the reader.
Though there is more than a whiff of advocacy in the pages of Hannah, Delivered, the information about the benefits of home birth and the “medicalization” of pregnancy as a health problem, rather than a natural state of being, isn’t preachy. Pregnancy and childbirth are as much a reproductive-rights issue as abortion and birth control, themes that Andrews embraces with zeal. While the book could benefit from a few more rounds of revision, it could also be said that such a process might have stripped Hannah, Delivered of its energy and joy, qualities it has in abundance.
Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew gives a reading at 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 24, at Collected Works Bookstore (202 Galisteo St., 505-988-4226).