Rosina, The Midwife by Jessica Kluthe
My rating: 4/5 stars
Between 1870 and 1970, twenty-six million Italians left their homeland and travelled to places like Canada, Australia, and the United States, in search of work. Many of them never returned to Italy.
Rosina, the Midwife traces the author’s family history, from their roots in Calabria in the south of Italy to their new home in Canada. Against this historic background, comes the story of Rosina, a Calabrian matriarch and the author’s great-great-grandmother, the only member of the Russo family to remain in Italy after the mass migration of the 1950s. With no formal training, but plenty of experience, Rosina worked as a midwife in an area where there was only one doctor to serve three villages. She was given the tools needed to deliver and baptize babies by the doctor and the local priest, and, over the course of her long career, she helped bring hundreds of infants into the world.
Enhancing the stories and memories passed down through her family with meticulous research, Kluthe has, with great insight, created not only Rosina’s story, but also the entire Russo family’s. We see her great-grandfather Generoso labouring through the harsh Edmonton winter to save enough money to buy passage to Canada for his wife and children; we glimpse her grandmother Rose huddled in a third-class cabin, sick from the motion of the boat that will carry her to a new land; and we watch, teary-eyed, as her great-great-grandmother Rosina is forced to say goodbye, one by one, to the people she loves.
I recently wrote about books that hit home and I mentioned a couple of books that talk about teen pregnancy and miscarriage, but this is The One that inspired the post, and the one I couldn’t review until I talked about That.
That said, there’s more to this book than pregnancy. Actually, pregnancy and childbirth didn’t play as big a role as I thought they would. I was expecting something like The Birth House. Pregnancy, birth, and loss all play a part, but this is really a story about identity and home.
I was also expecting fiction. I didn’t know Rosina was a memoir until I was offered a copy by the staff at LitFest, a non-fiction festival. It reads very much like fiction. I kept forgetting, and thinking “I wonder why she chose this setting,” or, “I wonder what the purpose of this character is,” then realizing that the setting was really where it happened and the character was a real person. Those questions are still valid though. In non-fiction, the author still chooses what to describe in detail, and what to gloss over. She chooses who has a voice – in this case, herself, and her great great grandmother Rosina – and who stays in the background.
Kluthe chooses to give a voice to a woman who stayed behind when her family left for Canada, who lost her husband as a young woman with young children, and who brought innumerable other babies into the world. I love hearing another side of history like this (though I admit, I knew little about Italian immigration from traditional sources, either.)
These women could be snapped off the tree like the walnut branches, and soon no one would know they existed.
The themes in this book reminded me of a lecture I attended by CanLit superstar Esi Edugyan. She spoke about her experience as a Canadian going “home” to Ghana, though she’d never lived in Ghana, and how her expectations about finding a place to belong were not quite satisfied – she was still an outsider, just in a different way. Kluthe goes though a similar journey as she visits Italy in a bid to understand her ancestor Rosina, to tie together the snippets and whispers she’s heard over the years. Of course, it’s not as easy as getting on a plane. Kluthe’s relatives speak Italian and even with a translator, you get a sense that she’s removed from the real conversation. I had trouble keeping all the relatives straight at times for the same reason – we’re kept at arm’s length.
There’s an air of mystery and secretiveness surrounding Rosina. Some of the relatives aren’t willing to speak. There were difficulties locating her grave. She always seems a few steps out of reach. The silence and shame surrounding Rosina are reflected in the author’s experience with an unplanned pregancy.
I imagined secrets swirling around the burgundy-stained glass. I felt like this secret was a serious one, and I knew I couldn’t ask any more questions
The writing has been described as lyrical, but it’s also really understated and simple, which worked well. Kluthe does a great job tying together the different time periods and settings, and the straightforward memoir with the imagined day-to-day life of Rosina.
Kluthe eventually makes some important discoveries about Rosina, but I wondered how much resolution she felt. This is real life, so it’s not all tied up in a neat little package. I found myself kind of bereft at the end, wondering, now that she knows about her ancestors, her home, how does that play out in her life? Does it help her move on from her loss? Well, a cool thing about reading non-fiction is that Kluthe is a real person so there’s a chance we’ll find out.
I’ve talked a bit about how this book hit home for me. I’ll leave you with this description of that time between thinking and knowing you are pregnant. That stillness and inertia is just how I remember it, too.
The snow stopped. What had fallen had hardened into one crisp layer across the ground. I knew I had to go tot the doctor; it had been almost three months since I had had a period. I had to drive down the highway and into the city to the clinic. I had to pass by the familiar houses, fields, and farms, curve under the overpass and pass the golf course, and wonder if, on my way back, this world would look different. I had already imagined the trip several times, switching between possible outcomes, possible feelings. If I told Mom, she would make me go to the doctor. If I told Karl, we would go together. He’d sit there with me and wait. On the way, he’d adjust the mirrors, the fans. Reset the trip dial.