By Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew*
Reviewed by Jamie Howison
Writing and the Pastoral Life, 2008
Theology in the Real World, 2012
Short-term scholar, 2009, 2011, 2014
Koehler Books, 2014, 300 pp.
When Elizabeth sent me a review copy of Hannah, Delivered, she included a note that began, “Dear Jamie, I’m not at all sure this is your kind of book! But I appreciate your willingness to look at Hannah nonetheless…”
We’d both been participants in a 2012 Collegeville Institute writing workshop led by Kathleen Norris, and I suspect that Elizabeth had fairly concluded that my interests were quite different from hers. Her writing passion was this novel she had been working on, while mine was a book I’d just finished on theological insights expressed in the music of jazz legend John Coltrane. I was using that week to write a series of Advent meditations on the “four last things”—death, judgment, hell, and heaven—which must have sounded terribly tradition-bound to Elizabeth, who spoke openly and vulnerably about her search for new ways to speak of the meaning of faith. “I’m not at all sure this is your kind of book” struck me as another way of saying “I’m not at all sure you’re remotely interested in a novel about midwifery and birth stories.”
What Elizabeth did not know was that my nineteen-year-old stepdaughter has talked about becoming a midwife since she was all of thirteen, so midwifery has very much been a topic of conversation in our home. What Elizabeth did not know is that for over thirty years, I have lived as a lone male in households of women. Along with my wife and stepdaughter, I also have two daughters in their mid-20s, and so the female realities of bodies, blood, and—for many—birthing babies have been a part of my world for some three decades. Of course one can rightly respond that men have often lived in such households and still remained obliviously out of touch with such matters, but thanks to the strength of the women in our family, I have been spared that particular naïveté.
Besides, Hannah, Delivered is a really good read. In fact, it has many of the ingredients of what is often called a beach novel, including strong writing, good narrative flow, interesting and believable characters, suspense and intrigue, and even a bit of romance. It works as the sort of novel that a reader can pick up for fifteen minutes, covering a few of the generally short chapters, and then quite easily resume later in the day. If I had any stylistic quibble, it would be that these chapter breaks seem to come up too quickly. Yet short chapters might be part of what will increase the appeal of Hannah, Delivered for those summertime beach readers.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not suggesting that this is just a beach book, without weight and substance. In the same way that the character of Hannah is likeable and familiar yet also conflicted and nuanced, Hannah, Delivered is at once a fine expression of what Mark Twain called “a good story well told” and a thoughtful exploration of deeper and yet oh-so-familiar human matters. As the story unfolds, the reader bears witness to Hannah’s formation as a midwife, but also to her coming of age as a woman whose way forward is through a complex web of relationships, memories, and secrets. Family dynamics, religious doubt and faith, personal integrity, even medical and legal ethics and practices—all of these and more are offered for our consideration.
I have no idea what a practicing midwife might think about this novel, or how accurately it portrays the reality of that vocation, but I can say something about how it spoke to me as a pastor and father with strong and independent adult daughters. As was true of the relationship Elizabeth portrayed between Hannah and her pastor father, letting go of old assumptions and finding the corresponding courage to be open to new realities has been a crucial and sometimes difficult task. Maybe it is the way for all parents, as they watch their children choose their own paths. Yet as Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew has so poignantly recognized, when something so foundational as religious faith is wrapped into parental identity, the stakes are raised. In Hannah, Delivered, I’ve been reminded to always keep my heart, my hands, and my mind open to those young women in my life.
* Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew participated in the 2012 writing workshop, Theology in the Real World: A Week with Kathleen Norris.