Friday, October 11, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

My Notorious Life by Kate Manning has been on my TBR list since 2013. Finally, I decided to move it to the top of my pile.

This novel, written as a memoir of a mid-19th century midwife (who had the audacity to also provide contraceptives and abortions), has a strong voice and poignant message that is all-too relevant today.

Axie Muldoon, otherwise known as Ann Jones, otherwise known as Madame DeBeausacq, is born into poverty in the tenement houses of New York City. After her father’s death, while her mother is hospitalized for a work-related injury, Axie and her two younger siblings are sent west on an orphan train. Her siblings are snatched up, but the rebellious Axie returns home to find her mother. Unfortunately, after a brief reunion, her mother dies of a postpartum hemorrhage, extracting a deathbed promise from Axie to find her siblings.

In the midst of these tragedies, Axie experienced two bits of good fortune. First, on the orphan train she met a young man named Charlie who will find his way back into her life later. And second, Axie took her dying mother to the home of the Evans’, a doctor and midwife, who gave Axie a place as a servant and later trained her to be a midwife.

After the death of Mrs. Evans, necessity and compassion lead Axie/Ann to begin selling pills and powders to desperate women. Eventually, she branches out into delivering babies, carrying for women pre- and postpartum, dispensing information about health and sex, and providing abortions. In doing so, she falls afoul of obscenity laws, championed by Anthony Comstock, which made the distribution of any form of fertility control illegal.

The novel is graphic in its language and descriptions, true to the subject matter. The horrific lives of women, poor or rich, unmarried or married, desperate to conceive or to end unwanted pregnancies, is heart-wrenching. Ann is presented as a caring woman, skilled at her profession, conflicted about the “complexities” of what she is doing, insecure, and remarkably brave. She is also, admittedly, greedy. She loves her newfound wealth. She (and her husband) have known grinding poverty and are determined not to fall into that trap again. Her conspicuous consumption aggravates her problems as the “old money” folks determine to bring her down–even though many are not above using her services when needed.

When Comstock discovers a way to arrest Axie, things spiral out of control. 

Axie is a vibrant, compelling, sympathetic character, and she narrates the novel at a brisk pace. This is historical fiction at its finest.