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The Blue Cotton Gown (Book Review)

January 7, 2009

The Blue Cotton Gown:  A Midwife’s Memoir
Patricia Harmon
Beacon Press
October 2008
290 pages

Reading “The Blue Cotton Gown,” I look up, realize I’ve read almost half of it in one sitting, and remember that it’s not a novel. She tells her own story, and those of the patients she sees with a lyrical suppleness that sweeps the reader along as compellingly as well-crafted fiction. A self-described “aging hippie” who began her practice after years on a farm commune, Harman retains a sense of optimism and wonder in both her practice and her writing. In her practice, she tries to stay compassionate, even when burdened by her own worries. She punctuates her writing with appealing flights of fancy, like standing outside in the sleepless quiet night, letting the starlight stream down over her head.
Patricia Harman writes an honest, sometimes heart-wrenching memoir about the realities of the midwifery/gynecological practice she runs with her husband in West Virginia. Short vignettes interweave her patients’ stories with her own. There is Holly, forty-five, busy with the demands of corporate life, and wrenching worry over her severely bulimic daughter. Trish, who is a nurse in the practice, worries over her pregnant teenage daughter Aran. Kasmar challenges the scope of Harman’s practice, and the social constructions of the small town, by beginning the hormonal transition from female to male. These, and other women, recur throughout the narrative, in brief glimpses that sometimes feel fast-paced but never quite seem rushed. Harman’s vignette style captures the pace of a midwife juggling a busy practice, never quite running ahead of schedule.
Finances and the business of the practice are a constant, looming worry for Harman and her doctor husband Tom, often driving her to lie awake for hours, brooding while her husband snores, or to walk the empty house. Their relationship, stressed by money worries a health scare, and the demands of the practice, is told in beautiful detail, candid, messy and touching in their commitment to each other.

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