The Midwife’s Advice

The Midwife’s Advice
Gay Courter
1993 (but OMG it’s still in PRINT!)

NUTSHELL: Sweeping historical fiction + progressive ideas about sexuality = a solid 8. There’s a reason I put this one on my Amazon wishlist.

Who’s the Midwife? The Midwife in question is one Hannah Sokolow, aged thirty, married to Lazar. Her children are Benny and Emma. Her mother lives with her; they rent from her sister Eva and brother-in-law Napthali. Also renting from Eva and Napthali are Hannah’s brother Chaim and sister-in-law Minna. All are Russian-Jewish immigrants, with the exception of the children, who were born in America. Hannah works at Bellevue.

What kind of advice does Hannah give? At first, it’s simple stuff — a woman asks her how to conceive a boy, so Hannah and her friend Rachael, a doctor, put their heads together. They find, in a survey of births, that Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods yield more boys than girls, so they figure the worst they can do is pass on Orthodox Jewish traditions, such as taharat hamishpacha. Before long, Hannah covers, in order, too few orgasms, too many orgasms, vaginismus, premature ejaculation, birth control, what’s “normal”, blocked Fallopian tubes (!), crossdressing, and impotence. Ten years, ten problems highlighted.

How did they know what half that stuff was back then? Margaret Sanger is one of the characters in this book, for one thing. Some of it, Hannah pretty much pioneers in lieu of traditional, barbaric treatments. (Muscles spasm shut when you go to have sex? Here, we’ll cut the nerve and you’ll just gape open.) Hannah is shown reading the experts of her day and learning as she sees these patients; it’s not as if she’s magically some kind of genius about sex. She learns as she goes and applies what she learns. It’s pretty neat to watch.

And that’s it? Well… no. Hannah and Lazar have issues because Lazar’s big on communism, to the point where he follows Trotsky to Russia. She didn’t mind him hanging around with Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, but Trotsky’s a trot too far. Courter neither demonizes or glorifies Lazar for what he does; she only gives us Hannah’s take on things, and Hannah’s pretty fair-minded.

1913-1922? That’s right. Ten turbulent, beautiful years. Let Hannah Sokolow be your guide through them.

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