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Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent

Ann has read so many baby books, it's impossible for me to keep up. But if there's one childbirth book to read, this is it.

Peggy Vincent, Baby Catcher
Baby Catcher comes to us from Peggy Vincent, a midwife with decades of experience helping mothers give birth — and a considerable literary gift as well. Reading this, I repeatedly felt as if it were "James Herriot for humans." (Herriot is the author of the series that begins with All Creatures Great and Small, about his life and work as a rural veterinarian in Yorkshire during the 1930s and '40s.) And that similarity is a very good thing!

Several qualities of Vincent's book invoke the comparison. Both writers address life-and-death situations without flinching, and show how everyone concerned is drawn in. Vincent (like Herriot) structures her account as a roughly chronological series of individual stories, each of which could stand alone. There are themes and characters that recur, but just as with Herriot, you could start at any chapter and not feel lost.

Just like Herriot, Vincent has a warm and humane sense of humor, with a deft touch for comic relief even amidst some of the more harrowing tales of labor and delivery. And the humor never (or rarely) comes at the expense of her subjects; she is much more willing to poke holes in her own self-importance than in the feelings or thoughts of her laboring clients. Like Herriot, there's also a characteristic streak of "writerly" language here, which would be less charming if it weren't so gently done. Like Herriot, many of these chapters end with a veritable punchline that pays off the whole story and releases the inherent tension of childbirth with a laugh.

Like Herriot in his own, Vincent is herself fully present in these stories. She's not hesitant to expose her own misconceptions and mistakes as she discovered her vocation and broke into the business. In so doing she brings us along on the journey of her professional development, and that's always illuminating, no matter what the field. There's a lively balance between stories that are more about the patient and more about the midwife, which adds to the interest and makes Vincent herself one of the more appealing characters in a book that's overflowing with them.

After reading five volumes of Herriot, many youngsters have been inspired to become veterinarians — and most readers have learned so much about veterinary practice that they feel as if they were one. Vincent is the same: I'm sure that a decade from now, the ranks of midwifery will be full of people who credit this book with their calling. And of more relevance for most of us: no matter who you are, you'll learn a lot about childbirth here. (As Ann and I prepare to welcome our firstborn in just a few weeks, I'm conscious of the debt I owe to Vincent.)

One major difference here is how politics runs so near the surface. Childbirth has powerful political dimensions, even though (or perhaps because) it's so intimate and personal an experience, and Vincent doesn't pull any punches. She occasionally strikes me as slightly too ideological (but I suppose I would return her the favor). And given the context of the stories she immerses us in, it's actually hard not to share her enthusiasm for parents' freedom, medical reform, and the spiritual imperatives connected with childbirth.

Like Herriot's, Vincent's book is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but almost always deeply joyful whether accompanied by laughter or tears. She's in good company.


Considered in this review: Peggy Vincent, Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife, (New York: Scribner, 2003).


first published Feb 23, 2006

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