When Charlotte Bedford, a Vermont housewife, decides to have her baby at home instead of in a hospital, midwife Sybil Danforth is hired to attend her. During a prolonged and difficult labor, the expectant mother suddenly collapses from an apparently fatal stroke. Deep snow and ice have downed the telephones and prevent Sybil from driving Charlotte to the hospital, so she decides to perform an emergency cesarian section to deliver the baby, though she has no medical license. Sybil’s assistant thinks the mother was still alive when Sybil performed the surgery, and that Sybil’s interference was the real cause of death. Secretly she calls the police. When the autopsy supports the assistant’s ideas, Sybil is charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Sybil believes she did nothing wrong under the circumstances and refuses to consider giving up midwifery. Yet despite her skilled lawyer’s machinations and support from midwives nationwide, Sybil’s case looks hopeless. Both the state and medical authorities oppose midwifery, and Sybil’s hippie past combines with the slick prosecution to imply her negligence and guilt. Mrs. Bedford’s family has a spotless reputation in the community; the jury clearly favors them. As Sybil resigns herself to fifteen years in jail with no hope of ever resuming her practice, help comes from an unexpected source—her teenage daughter, Connie, who has watched Sybil’s struggle all along. However, can Connie’s discovery of her mother’s private journal entries prove Sybil innocent?

Chris Bohjalian neatly avoids a problem plaguing many courtroom dramas, by minimizing legal jargon that bogs down the plot and leaves no room for action. MIDWIVES is a riveting novel written with understanding and taste.