The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (Road to Nowhere), by Meg Elison
Once in awhile you find a book that makes you happy to live in the time and place that can generate the writer. This phenomenal and devastating book comes across as a touch of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with the sensibilities of Margaret Atwood. It takes an ever-so rare look at what a dystopian world would be for women and turns it into one of the strongest statements on feminism for decades.
The book of the unnamed midwife is the journal of an anonymous nurse working in San Francisco at the time of a new plague. It strikes quickly around the world, and hits women particularly hard. The first signs of the disease are an increase in stillborn children or dying shortly after birth. The midwife catches the disease herself, but is one of the rare people to survive and recover. By the time she wakens from the devastating disease the world is radically changed, with men outnumbering women by 10 to 1 and the women who do survive are still delivering stillborn children.
It quickly becomes obvious that it’s a dangerous world for women. She straps down her breasts, lowers her voice, and dresses to accentuate her height. She begins a journey to find a place to survive. On her odyssey he meets and tries to protect other women she meets, all of whom are in danger of being enslaved or raped no matter what their age. Women, or the opportunity for sex with them, become a commodity.
She continues traveling east, always in danger of discovery. She runs into a Mormon settlement still surviving in Colorado. Refusing to join she lives nearby and uses her medical skills for trade. The disease hits here as well, bringing up a new prophet who decides that it’s appropriate for him to wed children. It’s a long and dangerous road until she finally finds a place offering her some peace and protection.
There is an oddity in the book. For some reason Elison has made guns a rarity, especially strange because if you held the USA upside down and shook you’d end up with more guns than people. Perhaps this allows the midwife more advantage in the single pistol she carries. It also puts her in a position of meting out justice in her own unique way.
It’s a book that is frightening, insightful, and conscience provoking. As soon as I’d finished I rushed to get a copy of the sequel, The Book of Etta. This book was awarded the Philip K. Dick Award, given to best new writers in speculative fiction, and it was definitely deserved.