Excerpt from A Place Like No Other: Ami McKay, Scotts Bay, and The Birth House

Whether you spell it Scot’s, Scott’s, Scots or Scotts Bay, this tiny rural community, nestled at the end of the Annapolis Valley’s North Mountain, has arrived on the literary map.

That’s because Ami McKay’s ebullient new novel, The Birth House, is set in Scots Bay in the early 20th century. The Birth House tells the story of young Dora Rare, only daughter in a family of seven children, and her development into the apprentice, and ultimately the successor of the community’s midwife, Marie Babineau. Set at a time when modern medicine had some less than modern ideas about women’s health and wellbeing, and limned by the war in Europe and of the Halifax explosion at home, the novel is a lyrical and provoking exploration written with courage and tenderness.

It’s a long way from either the corn belt of Indiana where McKay was born and raised or the bustling pace of downtown Chicago to a rural Nova Scotian community of some 150 people. But Scots Bay has become the place that Ami McKay wants to live for the rest of her days, with her husband Ian and sons Ian and Jonah. So much does she love her community, that when she began writing her novel, she never considered changing its name or setting her book elsewhere.

Writers draw inspiration for their works from any number of people, events, or locations. In McKay’s case, her journey from private writer to published author began before she moved to the house that inspired her novel.

Like many of us, Ami had kept journals, written poetry and short stories since she had been a child, but “had kept them secret forever.” In 2000, after a series of life events led her from Chicago to Nova Scotia to marry a longtime friend, she decided to write a note to the Oprah Winfrey show, about a book she had read while recovering from a terrible car accident several years earlier. This note led to an appearance on the Oprah show, focusing on when bad things happened to good people.

“I learned from that accident that you can’t just put things off; you’ve got to do it now because you probably won’t do it next week or next year. So I walked away from that experience determined to devote myself to my writing. I knew that I needed to get out and tell stories in my own way.”

The house she and her husband fell in love with was a century-old farmhouse, with all kinds of interesting surprises and secrets—bits of broken china and medicine bottles where Ami was digging a garden, seaweed insulation in the walls behind layers and layers of old newspapers…it was like a history lesson every day as the McKays settled in and made their house their home.

Before long McKay was pregnant, and as she got to know her neighbours better, they began to tell her how her home had once been a birth house. A Mrs. E. Rebecca Steele had been the community’s midwife early in the 20th century, and had lived in this house. Because she only had one child, a daughter she and her husband adopted after the child’s birth mother died, Mrs. Steele decided to open her home to expectant mothers; not only could they give birth at her house, they could stay for a few days and rest while adjusting to having a new baby.

Intrigued by these stories, McKay decided to explore further. It turned out that the daughter of the midwife was still alive, living in a nursing home, and Ami decided to go visit her. Mary, the daughter, was frail but still had a sharp mind. Not only did she remember her mother having the birth house, she proceeded to recite the name of every baby born there to McKay.