Monday, June 25, 2012
Books: Captured by Pirates
The story in The Midwife of Venice centers on Hannah Levi, the titular character who lives and works in Venice's Ghetto Nuovo in the last quarter of the 16th century. Hannah's husband is a trader whose work takes him out onto the high seas now and then. When we meet Hannah, on a sweltering summer night in 1575, we find that her husband, Isaac is held captive in Malta and that she is frantically trying to raise the two hundred ducats that will ransom him.
Enter the Conte di Padovani who comes to the ghetto to seek Hannah's aid. His sickly wife has been in labor for two days and only the reknowned midwife with her secret devise for assisting difficult births can save her life and the life of the Conte's all-important heir. But Hannah is a Jew and by law cannot attend a Christian woman. But the Conte will pay the ridiculous price of two hundred ducats for her services. But the Rabbi keeps screaming that she cannot go. Oh, the dilemma. I think we all know what Hannah does.
Meanwhile, on that rock of an island called Malta, Isaac is managing to talk his way out of the worst kind of slavery - chained to an oar on a Maltese galley. He also dodges conversion by a not-very-Christian nun and puts his literacy to good use in the service of a man that I think, but I'm still not sure, is a shipwright. Eventually news of a virulent plague in Venice reaches Malta and Isaac despairs, certain that his wife is dead and he must find his own way to freedom.
The machinations of the story weave in and out of themselves like sticky syrup that won't come off your fingers. Roberta Rich has taken the modern advice to writers, be a sadist and make your characters suffer, to the enth degree. Poor Hannah's unfortunate involvement with both the di Padovani family and her Christianized, prostitute sister, Jessica, turn her life inside out while she continues to struggle to save Isaac from a fate worse than death. For me, it became an honest slog by around page 130 when Hannah inexplicably returns to the di Padovani palace for dinner. Knowing I had two hundred more pages ahead seemed more daunting than it should have been.
That said, the history is spot on for the most part. I would have liked a bit more background on the Maltese Corsairs and why they had taken Isaac as a slave. For the most part, this Catholic brotherhood preyed on Barbary ships and left those from other Catholic nations, such as Venice, alone. But we are left without an answer for that and the focus is often on Isaac and Hannah's otherness as Jews in a Christian world.
The other focus is Hannah's midwifing secret, the one that has her threatened more than once with the Inquisition. These are her silver "birthing spoons" which amount to nothing more than forceps. As someone who has done a lot of research on midwifing throughout history, it was a little disappointing to find that out. Forceps were one of the largest causes of the rise in cases of puerperal fever in the second half of the 19th century. The other being the decline of midwifery and the rise of physicians. Doctors, in a hurry and unwilling to wait, used forceps on one woman after another spreading a disease that, prior to the introduction of the devise, was no where near as common as moderns are led to believe. An excellent discussion of this issue can be found in Judith Walzer Leavitt's book Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750-1950.
I won't spoil the ending, although I imagine you can guess. The Midwife of Venice might be a nice summer read, maybe on a cruise or on the beach, if - unlike me - you're not hung up on trickier issues of historical accuracy. I also had a hard time with the "Readers Group Guide" at the back of the book; I find those things insulting at best. But again, that's just me.
The Midwife of Venice is available via Amazon and other book sellers. As is, if it is more to your taste, Brought to Bed. Happy reading.