Kimberly Willis Holt, one of my favorite authors, read from her YA historical novel The Water Seeker, at an Austin, Texas SCBWI conference last spring, I was impressed with her no holds barred storytelling. The ordeal of childbirth in early nineteenth century America was not a subject Holt felt the reader needed protection from, and it's found in the opening pages.
Lolly, the protagonist Amos' grandmother, assists her daughter, Delilah as she is about to give birth to Amos: " . . . They were making their way through the woods, heading back to the cabin, when Delilah's water broke. Before the sun was down, she was crying out . . . The labor was long and hard, which puzzled Lolly since she'd merely grunted and pushed one time to bring each of her babies into the world. And when Lolly saw more blood coming from Delilah than she'd ever seen with all her own births put together, she suspected the outcome wouldn't be good."
All that blood is worrisome and the outcome isn't good for the birth mother. She dies of hemorrhage, her last words, "Don't let my baby forget me.". This bloody scene was unnerving to me as I listened to Holt read, and it would be shocking to a young reader, but not because it's exaggerated. It's hard to read because the scene is lifelike. Grunting, pushing, water breaking, and blood are still involved in childbirth, though, death from hemorrhage is thankfully less common, though still exists, in the United States. Pregnancy and childbirth and its risks are today, it seems, the hidden other-side of sexuality and often, unfortunately experienced by children.
Holt takes us through a typical nineteenth century surgical procedure, pre-Civil War when there was no anesthesia. During a scene involving a leg amputation, the only numbing comes from whiskey. About to have his leg cut off above the knee, Amos' father tells him, "You better sit on my arms, boy."
Also, back then, people lived with all their scars and imperfections. At the end, the girl Amos falls in love with and marries, after their dangerous adventure along the Oregon Trail, has a scarred face from a burn. But there is no treatment, no plastic surgeon to lessen the scar, and the girl lives with it. She is eventually loved for her inner beauty, a dramatic point in the novel.
Much of the tension in The Water Seeker, and in real life pre-Civil War, stems from dramatic injuries and threats to physical well being. Such things have great emotional impact.
There was little the medical profession could offer back then for treatment or comfort. Thankfully, things have improved. But, even so, having babies, undergoing surgery, and other kinds of medical care still have serious risks and discomforts, and though they are hidden and more private today, they still exist. Sex education and family planning, as well as otherwise staying healthy and safe in the twenty first century, is well worth the effort.
Historical novels such as this remind young adults, without having to live through the experience, how fragile life can be.
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