Sandra Dallas' new novel "The Last Midwife," set in the 1880's, tells the story of a beloved midwife in a Colorado mining town who is accused of murder. The trial of Gracy Brookens divides the town of Swandyke and reveals some troubling secrets about the town's most powerful resident and about Gracy herself.
Sandra Dallas spoke about the book with CPR's Andrea Dukakis.
Read an excerpt:
Dawn broke across the Tenmile Range in fi ery slashes of red— flaming streaks the color of blood. Sunrise was always violent in the high country. There were no pink- edged clouds or pale patches of lavender. Such softness wouldn’t be right in that raw landscape where men in their stampede for precious metals churned up the mountain streams until they were trickles of water through mounds of yellow waste rock, and scraped the thin topsoil from the land, leaving it naked, bare of anything that grew.
Tired as she was, Gracy Brookens stopped her buggy to admire the sweep of color that crept over the dark humps of mountains to the east and cast light onto the tips of the peaks with their honeycombed drifts of snow from last winter—or the winter before. It was past starshine now, and the red slashes were edged with gold richer than anything that ever came out of a Tenmile mine. Swatches of blue the color of columbines seeped into the red. The glory of the sky told Gracy there was a Holy Spirit in that land of greed and strug gle, particularly on a morning when she had just birthed a baby in Mayflower Gulch. Not that she needed convincing. The birth of a baby was proof enough. Every baby, she believed, was a miracle of God.
The infant had been a tiny thing, no bigger than a gray squirrel, most likely conceived in a mountain meadow, born in a hewn- log cabin with nary a win dow and only a dirt fl oor for him to crawl on. He’d be bred in the trees and rocks of the mountain peaks, like any other wild thing, brought up by the girl and boy who were only half grown themselves, young as Gracy’s Jeff . It wasn’t an easy life ahead. The baby had been born to poverty, would know disease and death, harshness and cold before he was grown, and likely, he wouldn’t have much book learning. But he’d have love. Those two who formed him out of themselves had love enough to sell.
Gracy smiled to remember how the boy had hovered around his wife. Most men didn’t want a thing to do with a lying-in. Once the labor pains started, a man usually taken out, rushing off to the mountain edge where he couldn’t hear the screams. A man would fi nd a bottle and sit with his friends, talking big, feeling he’d already done his part. Starting the baby had been up to him, but birthing was a woman’s job. No need for him to be there. After the child was delivered, the father would amble back, chest out, brash, bragging about the fi ne young thing he’d whelped, as if he’d done it all himself, saying every now and then, “Well, God!”
But this new father was different. He’d come himself for Gracy, had run all the way down the mountain for her, run back and reached the cabin even before she’d arrived in her buggy. Then he’d refused to leave. Gracy didn’t want husbands in the way, although at times she thought the men ought to know what their plea sure cost their wives. It would do for them to hear the cries, the calls for help, and to know the pain. Still, men got in the way, were clumsy in their attempts to help, off ered her advice, as if she hadn’t already delivered hundreds, maybe thousands, of babies and lost only a handful. She remembered those infants who hadn’t taken a breath, some named, most not. She remembered the women who died, too. Every one of those deaths was an ache on her heart, a dark shadow. But it was the ones who lived that Gracy always kept in her mind as she coached a woman in the delivery. The baby who’d been born that day would live. Gracy knew that by his lusty cry. She didn’t know what he’d been named, did not know the names of the boy and girl, either. She’d never seen either one of them before that night, and there hadn’t been time for introductions. It was that way sometimes.
The boy had stayed by his wife’s side, rubbing her back and whispering words of love as she twisted in pain and begged Gracy to make the baby go away. It hadn’t been such a long labor, but the girl was wore out even before the time came for her to push. The boy, too. She was too young, too much a girl for childbirth, and the boy had promised he’d never again put her through such pain. Gracy had smiled at that. It was never a promise to be kept.
When the pains slacked off , the boy built up the fire and heated more water. He warmed the soft rags set aside to swaddle the baby, even off ered to make tea for Gracy. The thoughtfulness touched her. She’d wanted a cup and half thought to say yes before she remembered how poor the two of them were. The tea was dear bought and should be saved for the girl.
“We’ve no money to pay you,” the boy said. “But I noticed your cabin needs chinking, and I’m right smart at it. There’s nary a breeze that comes through these logs.” He nodded at the walls made of logs squared off and fi tted tight, chinked with mud and burro dung, and tried not to sound proud. “And she knows where the best raspberries grow. We’ll bring you a pail come raspberrying time. Or a pie. She makes it better than anybody, that one.”
Gracy wondered where they’d get the money for the sugar, but she said, “Pay enough,” and indeed, it was better than what she got from some. Cash money, even the two dollars she charged for a birthing, was hard to come by, and she didn’t always receive it. She’d have attended the girl anyway, of course. You couldn’t turn down a mo ther, especially one giving birth to her first. So Gracy might have told the boy she didn’t expect anything from him, because they didn’t have anything. The bed was spread with balsam for a mattress, and a stove had been fashioned from an oil drum. Still, those two wouldn’t take charity. Gracy would have to warn the women in her Swandyke quilting group about that. They’d want to help, to bring their broth and stews, their tiny quilts and shirts. They would mean well. But they’d have to be humble.
From The Last Midwife by Sandra Dallas. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.