Sunday, October 27, 2013

My Notorious Life

Inspired by the true story of Ann Trow Lohman known as Madame Restell, who practiced as a "female physician" in New York City during the late 1800s, My Curious Life by Kate Manning tells the tale of a brave and daring young heroine who fought the system and powers that be for the greater good of womankind.

It was February or maybe March of 1860 when 12-year old Axie Muldoon, the daughter of poor Irish immigrants, and her younger sister and baby brother, Dutch and Joe, respectively, meet a stranger which exchanged their uncertain future for another equally uncertain. Starving ("my legs was sticks, my ribs a ladder") and freezing with no hats or mittens, the trio stood outside a bakery doorway praying for the kindness of strangers, not particular, they would eat even the crumbs swept out for the birds ("we was worse than birds, we was desperate as rats"), when they meet Reverand Charles Brace of the Children's Aid Society. While Brace's assistance helps to initially save Axie's mother's life, what at first seems a God send, turns out to be the catalyst that sets in motion a chain of events which results in the irrevocable destruction of the Muldoon family, and Axie's temporary separation from her mother and siblings.

Like so many orphaned or abandoned children of immigrants during that time, the Muldoon children are sent off with promises of a brighter future on an orphan train which leads them to Rockford, Illinois. After months of heartache and rejection, it is Axie alone who returns to the familiar streets of New York City and her mother's arms only to be permanently separated from each other after her mother's tragic death post-childbirth. Orphaned and per her mother's dying wish, apprenticed to a doctor and his wife, Mrs. Evans, herself a midwife, Axie is welcomed into their home where she serves as a maid and helper in the kitchen to kindly Mrs. Browder. Axie's inquisitive mind, small hands and kind heart captivate Mrs. Evans and she becomes Axie's willing teacher, imparting her wisdom and skills to her young student and thereby helping to cement the path which would become Axie's life's work. As Axie struggles with the complexities of a midwife's role due to cruel taunts of "little babies mudered in that Evans house" from her friend Greta, Mrs. Evans tries to explain herself and offers Axie words she'll never forget, "the soul of a midwife is a broad soul and a gentle soul, and she delivers the greatest blessing the Lord bestows on us poor creatures. But, a midwife must also keep comfortable with the complexities. What I call the lesser evil. You will learn not to judge too harsh on others. If you don't learn this, you're not suited to the work."

Following the lessons from her teacher, Axie grows in both experience and understanding, and in doing so lets midwifery chart the course of her life, helping her to find love, fame and riches which drag her from dingy tenement rooms of her youth to a mansion on Fifth Avenue. When circumstances put her in a collision course against a group of powerful men threatened by her presence and her beliefs in women's reproductive rights, Axie must rely on her courage, will and determination to stand up and fight for her family, her freedom and all she holds dear.

My Notorious Life was a wonderful and thought-provoking book. It enlightens on the every day struggles faced by women of that era in relation to their reproductive rights, whether it was childbirth and their inability to rely on pre-natal medical care or the safe, sterile environment of a hospital to deliver their child and insure their well-being; or the lack of contraception, or the more sensitive subject of a woman's right to choose, married and single women who desperately took measures and matters into their own hands, sometimes with tragic consequences because there weren't safer recourses at their disposal. As in all rights movements, there is always a standard bearer fighting for the cause and willing to bear the repercussions of going up against unenlightened minds, and such is the case with Axie, the heroine in this story. The reader can't help but fall in love with her as a child, moved by her struggles and heartache, and as an adult, to be inspired by her courage and determination to fight for her convictions; her will, despite being vilified and persecuted, to fight for the poor women without recourse or voice who needed her help to rise above their every day fight for survival. As much as the book focuses on Axie's crusade, it is also a tale of love, family and loyalty.

We as women take for granted the rights and resources we have today which ensure a safe childbirth and, in turn, a healthy future for mother and child combined; as well as a society, which at most times, is open-minded and enlightened enough to not only accept, but embrace, a woman's innate right to control her own life. In the early 1800s, women were marginalized and expected to focus their attention and interest on raising a family. A real education or professional career was a pie in the sky, and women didn't even have the right to own their own property or keep their own wages. Lest we forget, women didn't have the right to vote in the United States until the year 1920. It is therefore moving to read the real story, even if through a fictional novel, of what many women had to go through due the few rights alotted to them as second-class citizens, and thanks to the strict code established by men of that time. Women who died in childbirth every day because of uninformed and unscrupulous doctors; women who despaired at their life, at having nine or ten children which they couldn't feed; women cast out in shame from their families to the streets just because they were expecting a child.

My Notorious Life is an engaging and poignant work of fiction which memorably reminds us of how far we (women) have come, and in turn inspire us to continue on with the work still to be done.