Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Review: Midwife of the Blue Ridge

America’s colonial period interests me, especially colonial events that happened in my area. Maybe it’s because my ancestors came to the area in the 1700s; at least one (Michael Holland from Middlewich, England) was an indentured servant. Most folks in this part of Virginia know the story of Mary Draper Ingles, kidnapped in 1755 from what is now Blacksburg by Shawnee in 1755 and carried to what is now Cincinnati. Mary's story was the subject of James Alexander Thom’s 1986 novel, Follow the River, a book I enjoyed. Like most Franklin County folks, I've heard the story of early settler (1750s) Robert Hill, who built one of the area's blockhouses and had two sons killed by the Shawnee—one tomahawked and scalped near Bald Knob (a Rocky Mount landmark).

I live surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. From my study window, I can see Peaks of Otter. Consequently, when I heard about Christine Blevin’s historical novel, Midwife of the Blue Ridge, I figured I’d enjoy it. I was right—I did indeed enjoy it.

“What canna be cured must be endured.” Maggie Duncan recalled this advice from her adoptive mother. In Midwife of the Blue Ridge, there is much that Maggie must endure.

Unable to make a living in 1760s Glasgow, Maggie decides to becomes an indentured servant in the colonies and sails to America aboard the Good Intent, where she endures the uncomfortable accommodations of the ship’s tween deck and attracts the lustful attentions of Julian Cavendish. Fortunately, Cavendish is tricked from buying Maggie’s indenture and her services are sold instead to frontiersman Seth Martin, who needs household help and a midwife for his ill and pregnant wife, Naomi.

Maggie adjusts well to frontier life and the Martins—even catching the eye of a long-hunter, Tom Roberts—but trouble with the Shawnees ensues. The Martins join other settlers in the nearest fort until danger passes, and Maggie makes herself useful with her knowledge of plants and cures. She delivers Naomi’s son, but Naomi succumbs to childbed fever. She also cares for survivors of a brutal attack by the Shawnee.

When the remaining Martins return home, Cavendish and his brutes are foreclosing on farms that weren’t properly registered—and the Martins’ home is one. Maggie tells Seth to let Cavendish have her contract, so the Martins can stay long enough to harvest their crop. she plans to run away and rejoin the Martins later.

Cavendish, however, is a brutal master and treats Maggie no better than his slaves. After he rapes her and dislocates her arm, she is tended by a slave who is herself a healer. Meanwhile, Tom decides to return to her, but will he be able to find her?

I won’t tell you the rest, but the story ends on a positive note. Although there’s a love story here, the harshness of Virginia frontier life makes sure that it’s not a sugar-coated romance. Indeed some of the scenes are graphic—including one in which the Shawnee kill and torture a captive. These scenes, however, add to the realism of the story. Life on the frontier was indeed harsh.

Maggie is an admirable character, who makes the most of her lot in life. Strong, strong-willed and skilled in the healing arts, she is not afraid of hard work and is determined to survive. I especially like that she speaks in dialect—I could clearly hear her voice.

I am impressed with Blevins’ well-rounded characters, descriptions of frontier living, and compelling plot. Her adroit skill at story-telling made the events believable—even though she had one anachronism that I noticed. (Some of my writer buddies told me I was probably the only one who would notice that a mule appeared in the story. Mules did not appear in America until just after the Revolutionary War.) The inclusion of a mule, however, didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the story—but if this book is ever made into a movie, perhaps the mule can be changed to a horse.

I recommend Midwife of the Blue Ridge to anyone who likes historical fiction, strong female protagonists, and good writing.

I just started an advanced reader copy of Blevins’ The Tory Widow, which will be in bookstores next month. While I’m only a couple of chapters into it, I like what I’ve read so far.

Midwife of the Blue Ridge (432 pages; ISBN: 978-0425221686) was published last August as a Berkley trade paperback. I've mentioned both of Blevins' books in two earlier posts—here and here.


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Blogger Debi Kelly Van Cleave said...

You would be the only one who'd catch the mule!

And I thought I had it hard here on my little farm in 2009. I sound like a big baby now after hearing everything she went through!

8:03 PM  
Blogger Amy Tate said...

Looks like I'll be adding that one to my tower of books.

9:00 PM  
Anonymous Christine Blevins said...

Hey Becky Mushko!

Thank you so much for the lovely review. I am happy that you enjoyed Maggie’s story.

Although I’m afraid that I have to disagree with you on when mules first appeared on the scene in the colonies. Mules have been around for a long, long time, and were considered superior draft animals by ancient Romans and Greeks. There is evidence that the Spanish were early importers of donkeys, horses and mules to all of their holdings in the New World. I know George Washington is famed as the “Father of the American Mule” for his importation of breeding stock from Spain in 1785, but little tidbits like the the one I am tacking onto the end of this comment led me to believe that some not-so-famous mules were on the scene long before GW took an avid interest – though probably not in any great numbers – but I felt it was not a complete anachronism to saddle Seth with stubborn Ol’ Mule. :-)

Again, thanks!
Wishing you Happy Reading and Writing!

Christine Blevins

When Captain Smith left the Jamestown settlement in 1609, he left them with –

“three ships, seven boats, commodities ready to trade, the harvest newly gathered, ten weeks' provision in store, four hundred ninety and odd persons, twenty-four pieces of ordnance, three hundred muskets, snaphances and fire-locks, shot, powder, and match sufficient, curats, pikes, swords, and morrios, more than men; the Salvages, their language and habitations well known to a hundred well-trained and expert soldiers; nets for fishing; tools of all kinds to work; apparel to supply our wants; six mules and a horse; five or six hundred swine; as many hens and chickens; some goats; some sheep; what was brought or bred there remained.”

from GENERAL HISTORIE OF VIRGINIA by Captain James Smith; 1624 the Fourth Book.

10:31 PM  
Blogger Becky Mushko said...

See my blog post for March 28, 2010:

Mules didn't make it into the Blue Ridge until after 1820.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Becky Mushko said...

Since getting interested in my family genealogy, over the past year I've read dozens of wills left by my central Virginia and Blue Ridge area ancestors from the mid-1700s through early 1800s. Much livestock was left to survivors—horses (often identified as mare or gelding, and sometimes described), cattle, swine, sheep, and the occasional ox, but no mention of mules. No jack was mentioned either—and you need a jack to breed to a mare to produce a mule.

4:54 PM  

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