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The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

June 10, 2021

Went on a Meg Elison rampage recently, and I read everything I could find by her. The three-book series that begins with The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a delight. All three books are fast and easy reads but thoughtfully constructed. More than just a dystopian setting for an exploration of human foibles, this particular setting—after a pandemic that kills mostly women and makes childbirth deadly for both mother and infant—is the backdrop for an exploration of feminist power.

The unnamed midwife is a woman who lives in the San Francisco area before the pandemic and survives the fever. Waking up in the hospital where she worked as a labor and delivery nurse and finding herself one of the very few women left alive, she quickly figures out that she must present herself as male and trust no one, after a few encounters with groups of men. She has a stock of medicines, including birth control, and a gun she found while scavenging through empty houses. The first time she meets two men traveling with a woman, she barters for half an hour with her and then proceeds to give her birth control and advice. This becomes a pattern, and she keeps herself alive and out of bondage to a roving gang of men against overwhelming odds.

For a while the midwife calls herself Dusty and lives with a Mormon couple who have left their community, but while the company is welcome, they don’t have much in common. At one point she thinks that “more than food or drink, more than hot showers springing miraculously from the wall in the bathroom, more than television and Internet and the buzz of strangers, almost more than the feeling of safety and not having to constantly be on guard, she missed conversation. That moment of connection, of being understood that passed easily between equals.”

Much of the midwife’s story is told through entries in her journal, and when she finds a small community and settles down, she teaches them to keep journals, too. “Journaling caught on as a fad, then became embedded in the culture.” Near the end of her life, the midwife delivers a live baby who grows up, the first sign that life will go on in the world.

In an epilogue, we learn that the midwife’s community grows until Etta is born there over a century later. The second book in the series is called The Book of Etta.

Etta is a raider, someone who goes out to trade for things and rescue women being held as slaves. As a raider, Etta carries the midwife’s gun and like her, travels as a man, giving the name of Eddy. As Eddy’s story goes on, we see that he prefers to live as a man. We also see more of what has happened to the U.S. as Eddy tells the stories of his travels. Place names are simplified and shortened. A city in Missouri that they call Estiel is known by pronouncing the old airport name for it, STL. They hear about a place on the east coast called “Niyok. It used to be a huge city, but it’s mostly burned….Nobody believes how big the buildings are. And there’s this woman in the water. Green. Huge, taller than a tree.” Sometimes it takes a minute to figure out what is meant by a place name—I needed a minute when I read about a city on the “great plain” called Demons. When it became clear that this area had been Iowa, I could finally recognize the corruption of Des Moines. The place names do give the characters’ travel a flavor of the unknown.

Although we’ve previously sympathized with the harsh measures taken by the midwife and by Eddy’s community in order to help enslaved women, Eddy’s travels show that this is not the only way to live in this world. When he stays in a community with some people who think differently and is asked what they do with slavers, this is the ensuing conversation:
“Eddy,” Flora almost whispered. “What do your people do?”
Eddy laughed shortly. “We kill them. For fuck’s sake. Of course we kill them. We hang them up outside our gates with a sign that explains what we did. We take any women or children they have, and it ends there. It ends.”
….”How barbaric,” Flora said, looking at Mandel.
The tall woman clucked her tongue. “Dead men don’t learn anything. Changed men change the world.”
“Men don’t change,” Eddy said automatically. “They never have.”
“If you say so,” Mandel said with a hint of amusement.

Eddy and Flora travel together and learn from each other, although they are resistant to what the other has to say. They expand each others’ point of view and by extension, the reader’s. At points we get a perspective on our lives today, as here:
“Before the plague, women were rulers and peacekeepers and cooks and dancers and whatever they wanted to be. And they had medicine that made it impossible to get pregnant. They were free. And now they’re property almost everywhere, raped to death and sold to monsters by monsters.”
At a later point, Eddy says “I think that in the old world, women were slaves. Maybe not like they are now, but somebody needed that vest. Somebody needed her pills or her rings to keep from getting pregnant. Maybe slavery just looked nicer back then.”

Eddy and Flora succeed in rescuing a little girl and Eddy continues to wrestle with his conscience about those women he can’t rescue. Eventually he succeeds in killing the enslaver of dozens of women, the “Lion of Estiel,” and rescuing the women. Later they find a community of Mormons who are living, literally, underground, and Eddy finds more to wrestle with in their conception of what women should be.

Eddy thinks “I was made. I made me” and “whatever was in him that was Etta looked sideways at that, but he ignored it.” We learn that not only is it important to Eddy to present himself as male, but it’s also very important for Flora to present herself as female, and we learn more about why.

In the third book, The Book of Flora, we meet a character Flora comes to think of as her child, Connie, a person who doesn’t want to present as either male or female. Elison pays this character the conventional respect of today by referring to the character as “they” but this is occasionally confusing, like when the reader isn’t yet oriented to how many people are in the scene being described. Flora has settled on the west coast, in an area that is clearly near Seattle, called Settle. She gathers journals and stories and preserves them, telling the story of her travels in retrospect, from the place she has “settled.”

One of Flora’s stories is about a community of women in a city called Shy; their community seems idyllic until she digs deeper and finds out how they treat their children. When she questions someone from Shy about it, she is told “nobody hurts them. Nobody fucks them. They’re safe and they’re taken care of. What more is there to childhood anyway?” A longer story, about the Mormon community, who initially seem to be kind, shows that “if we cannot decide what happens inside us, we are slaves.” Because of what she’s seen, in the community Flora helps to make, “no one…is entitled to the labor or the body of another.”

Flora hears Etta’s mother declare, at the end of her life, that “nothing is settled and nothing is won. The Lion won’t stay dead, because men like him always rise. We don’t stay free because of something we did once. We stay free because we fight our way free every day.”

Flora’s ultimate battle turns out to be against an army of men who want to control people they call “frags.” This is not a word like the city names, changed from something we know; it is something new. The army believes that a “frag” is someone who is “fragmenting” in that “the offspring can only frag; they can’t get pregnant in the usual way. Some of the frags can do both, but not the ones who are born of it. They’re just different.” When someone asks if they’re male or female, we’re told that they’re “neither. Something else. Something new.” As we’ve been brought slowly to understand Eddy’s and then Flora’s point of view, it seems clear that in this strange new world that has such people in it, eventually humans can learn to see people differently, just as evolution has found a way to create them differently.

The series is a mind-expanding journey and also quite entertaining. Meg Elison is that rare sort of writer who can present provocative ideas while still telling a good story.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2021 1:48 am

    Thanks for your review!
    I fear that I can bear only so much darkness/horror. And Elison dives deep into it every time! I could never binge read her.

    • June 16, 2021 3:13 pm

      I didn’t find this series that horrible, despite the fact that it describes some horrors. I think the forward momentum lulled me and the fact that the characters kept trying to be better kept me wanting to read farther.

  2. June 10, 2021 3:04 pm

    They do sound thought-provoking indeed. My dystopia tolerance is limited (too depressingly plausible,) although I have been wanting to reread Station Eleven lately.

    • June 16, 2021 3:14 pm

      The way Station Eleven is about the arts, this one is about performing gender. So yes, dystopia but as a backdrop for other ideas, ones that stand out starkly in contrast.

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  1. Dystopia, gender and some genius – Cathy's Reading Bonanza

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