Book review: ‘A Midwife in Amish Country’

Sep 17, 2018 by

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In her excellent 2013 study of the Amish romance, Thrill of the Chaste, Valerie Weaver-Zercher decisively argues that books about the Amish are predominantly written for an evangelical Christian audience. The Amish romance’s narrative structure, its language patterns and its themes reflect discourse patterns privileged by many evangelicals, Weaver-Zercher explains. And most of the genre’s authors are not Amish, so the books’ portrayal of Amishness is “fictionalized, edited, published, marketed and sold by non-Amish actors.”

"A Midwife in Amish Country"

“A Midwife in Amish Country”

I thought often of Weaver-Zercher’s work while reading Kim Woodard Osterholzer’s memoir, A Midwife in Amish Country, which is clearly written and marketed to an evangelical audience — readers who can definitively trace divine providence through everyday experiences, who see Scripture as inerrant and who treasure narrative as a significant way we testify to God’s goodness, love and mercy.

Osterholzer also uses “Amishness” as a hook for her story, because although the Amish appear throughout the book, A Midwife in Amish Country ends up being much more about midwife practices than about Amish culture.

Still, fans of Amish literature will find Osterholzer’s narrative interesting, and numerous positive online reviews mention the memoir as an important one in helping to shape readers’ understanding of Amish life.

Those intrigued by the day-to-day practices of midwives —which often extend into day-to- night-to-day practices — will also be drawn to Osterholzer’s work and to her descriptions of how birthing processes unfold for those who choose to remain at home during labor and delivery.

Osterholzer frames her memoir around the birth of an Amish couple’s first child, which also happened to be the first delivery she manages solo. No longer an apprentice to a midwife pseudonymously named Jean, Osterholzer must navigate the birth, and all its variables, without Jean’s wisdom and experience. In between this opening and ending scene, Osterholzer tells the story of her life’s trajectory toward midwifery, the obstacles she faces in pursuing her calling, and the triumph of becoming a certified midwife, after many years of hard work and study.

A passion for her work is woven through Osterholzer’s narrative. She felt this passion from an early age, especially after a teen­age friend loaned her a memoir about homebirth midwifery. Although she had nearly fainted when watching a documentary about pregnancy and birth just a few years earlier, Osterholzer recalls reading the book about homebirth midwifery and feeling transformed. The small “spark of life” she’d felt when she committed her life to Jesus was ignited by the book and “I looked at the book in my lap again and the spark burst into flame. I knew without a doubt in my mind God created me to be a midwife among the Amish.”

From that point forward, Osterholzer was dedicated to her calling, reading book after book about midwives, despite still sometimes feeling unsettled by the details. In a kind of aversion therapy, Osterholzer pored over the graphic descriptions of births and, over time, “the intense visceral reactions” she experienced were “replaced with wonder and amazement.”

Her passion for this calling intensified because she welcomed these “missives of normalcy, of beauty, of sanctity to infuse my soul and transmute my responses to them,” preparing her for the work that she would begin in earnest after graduating from high school and after her marriage at age 20 to Brent Woodard.

Osterholzer’s apprenticeship is not without its challenges, though it remains clear that despite difficulties, Osterholzer is dedicated to the role to which she’s been called. Because midwives work so intimately with the families they serve, they gain access to places and to family dynamics most of us never see.

For readers drawn to an understanding of Amish culture, descriptions of Amish homes might be especially intriguing, though such details might also challenge any romantic notions about the Amish, as a few places Osterholzer visited were less than pristine. Some families also navigated relational complexities with loved ones that might betray any notion that Amish are more pure at heart, more simple in their human interactions.

The writer’s vulnerability is an important part of any memoir, and I appreciate Osterholzer’s willingness to honestly describe those moments when she struggled physically or emotionally during her work with families. She shares with readers her longing to be fully present at each birth, even when faced with her own physical and emotional challenges, including a significant but too-long undiagnosed tracheal restriction which made even breathing a challenge, as well as postpartum depression after the birth of her second child. (A word of caution, though: While Osterholzer felt she was cured of this depression by prayer alone, for many women medication and therapy might be needed.)

Those drawn to stories of pregnancy and childbirth will especially enjoy Osterholzer’s memoir as she describes the births she attended, in all their beauty and their pain. Osterholzer has a deep reverence for the birthing process, for the strength and resilience of women who give birth naturally and at home, and for the sanctity of every life.

Part of her calling comes from this place of reverence, a desire to accompany families as they welcome new life. For Osterholzer, being a midwife is sacred work. So too are the efforts of families to bring their children safely and lovingly into the world.

Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.

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