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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"The Midwife's Tale" by Samuel Thomas~A Whodunit Historical!


In the tradition of Arianna Franklin and C. J. Sansom comes Samuel Thomas’s remarkable debut, The Midwife’s Tale
It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to be burnt alive. Convinced that her friend is innocent, Bridget sets out to find the real killer.
Bridget joins forces with Martha Hawkins, a servant who’s far more skilled with a knife than any respectable woman ought to be. To save Esther from the stake, they must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes Bridget and Martha from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways of its poorest neighborhoods. As they delve into the life of Esther’s murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a deeply sinister secret life, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand.


Published by:  St. Martins/Minotaur
Pages:  320
Genre:  Historical Fiction/Mystery
Author:  Samuel Thomas   http://samthomasbooks.com
Purchase this book:  Barnes & Noble  and  Amazon

The Trailer :


Samuel Thomas is an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.  He has received research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, and the British Academy.  He has published articles on topics ranging from early modern Britain to colonial Africa, and is currently writing a historical monograph on midwifery in seventeenth-century England.  Thomas lives in Alabama with his wife and two children.

Hi, Sam, I'm so happy to be able to talk with you today about your work.  I absolutely loved "The Midwife's Tale" and I'm dying to know more about you.  So, let's get started with the usual questions for my readers!

1)    First of all, please tell us a special something about what makes you “tick.”  When you aren’t writing, what are you doing?


Well, my full time job is teaching high school history, and I’m the father of two boys (ages nine and six), so if I’m not writing, I’m reading, grading, or trying to keep our house from collapsing into complete chaos!


I think the ‘teaching’ side of things is key. I wrote academic history and taught at the university level before I started writing fiction, and I’ve come to think of these as different aspects of the same project. Whether it’s in the classroom, writing a history article, or The Midwife’s Tale, my goal is to say something important about the past in a way that my audience will find interesting.

2) We’re always curious about where a writer chooses to write.  Could you tell us about your favorite place to write?  Describe it in detail…what’s on your desk, what do you see from the window if any…do you have a favorite lucky charm?

I’ve got a couple of places I like to write. On a daily basis, I write in my basement. It’s cozy, and quiet. I’ve got my computer plot notes, and earlier drafts. And usually Legos, since the basement doubles as our kids’ playroom.


My favorite place to write, however, is York, England, where The Midwife’s Tale is set. Bridget Hodgson – my protagonist – is based on a real midwife who lived in York during the Civil Wars. There was a coffee shop about a block from the parish church of St. Helen’s Stonegate, where Bridget was buried. I loved the idea of looking down a street that she surely used, towards the church where she spent her Sundays.

3) Bronte or Austen?  Hemingway or Hawthorne?  Why? 

Yikes. Here is where I lose my audience. I haven’t read any of these, save Hemmingway! I spent years in graduate school focused on the Renaissance and Reformation, and until the very end of the period there were no novels. For the better part of a decade I did no reading for pleasure. 

For the early modern period, I’d go with: Shakespeare, of course; Andrew Marvell (“To his Coy Mistress” is a wonder); and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who blurs the line between smut and art.

4) In your opinion, what makes a book a great one?

The standard answer is “characters,” of course, and I think that’s right. If you give the reader a protagonist to root for, and surround her with a good supporting cast you’re on the right track.


Over the last few months, though, I’ve become convinced that knowing how to end a book is the thing that separates the good from the great. This is something that is really hard to do well, in part because life rarely ends neatly.


With mysteries and thrillers, things become especially difficult because you have to get all the pieces to fit together in exactly the right way, and do so under artificial time constraints. You can’t have your detective waiting two weeks for lab results, as they would in the real world. Readers demand tension and resolution, and that can be hard to do without straining the bounds of credulity.


5) Which author(s) most influenced your love of books? 


Hmmm. That’s a hard one – I’ve been a serious reader as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom reading the Chronicles of Narnia to me. But I also loved youth-oriented historical fiction (surprise!), especially My Brother Sam is Dead and Rifles for Watie.


More recently I’d say that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s incredible The Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary opened my eyes to what social history could be. As soon as I finished it, I said, “That is the kind of book I want to write.” Little did I know I’d later have one of the same title! 


6) Read any good books in the past 6 months? 

Oh, a ton, but mostly mysteries rather than historical fiction. (I have a policy of dropping books if they don’t grab me in the first fifty pages or so. You’ll never find me writing a bad review, since I never finish books I don’t like.) My recent favorites:

·        Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl. Believe the hype. This is one incredible read.

·        Owen Laukkanen, The Professionals. Somehow he manages to get you to root for both the cops and the criminals. I spent hours trying to find a way for everyone to win.

·        Steve Hamilton, The Lock Artist. Perhaps the most interesting and original protagonist I’ve come across in years. It won a ton of awards and deserved more.

7) Choose 4 guests from any era for dinner.  Who would they be and what would you choose for a topic of conversation?

Well, since I’m a historian, this is pretty easy.

1)     Bridget Hodgson. Since The Midwife’s Tale is about a fictionalized version of her, I really ought to buy her dinner, don’t you think?

2)     Oliver Heywood. He was a Presbyterian minister in England at a time of religious persecution. I wrote my doctoral thesis about him, and I’d love to talk to find out if any of my ideas about what made him tick were accurate.


3)     Charles II of England. The man fathered twenty-five children, none with his wife. You have to think that he’d be an interesting guest.


4)     Roxie Reeve. Roxie was a Quaker missionary in eastern Kenya in the early twentieth century. When I was in grad school I read a lot of her letters, and wrote about the boarding school she opened for orphaned girls. She was a no-nonsense character, and was sent back to the US because she wouldn’t listen to her male superiors. I’m not sure she’d like me, but I’d like to meet her.


The topic would have to be sex or religion, but aren’t those the two subjects that you’re supposed to avoid? I think I’d just have Charles get us started and see what happens.

8) There’s a song that goes along with your book, what is it?    N/A

9) If you could cast your book for a movie, who would you choose for your 2 main characters?

My wife and I have argued about this. For Bridget Hodgson, she wants Kate Winslett. While a great actress, I want Bridget to have more physical authority, so I’m going with Cate Blanchett.

Martha is tougher, only because I can’t name very many actresses in their early twenties. Can Jennifer Lawrence do an English accent?


10) Worst habit you have while writing books? 

Same as everyone. The internet.


11) How much research did you do before and during writing?

Years! I first discovered the historical Bridget Hodgson nearly ten years before I started writing The Midwife’s Tale. I wrote two academic articles about early modern midwifery and I used a lot of that research for the novel.


The only real gap had to do with the setting, so I had to read up on the siege of York. Other than that, I was in pretty good shape. 


12) Psychologists tell us the thing we think we’d most like to grow up to be when we’re ten years old is our avocation.  What did you want to be?

A policeman or a teacher. I guess I was right!
Seriously, Sam, this is one of the most interesting interviews we've ever had.  I'm going to have to check out your book choices, too.  I can absolutely see Cate Blanchett as Bridget!  It would be a wonderful movie.
Now:  The Dame's Review :
Sam Thomas's book is a sparkling achievement in historical fiction.  It's also a welcomed achievement in feminist literature.  Further, it's not a shabby whodunit, either!  A trifecta of reading perfection.  I absolutely loved the book.
The midwife in question, Bridget Hodgson is a mighty force of a woman.  She's the empirical strong woman who commands and demands respect in an otherwise male dominated world.  She's the alpha female in a world of women.  I couldn't get enough of her bravery, her wisdom and her blustering action on behalf of the rights of women. 

I learned many a thing about midwifery and the power they welded in the 1600's.  Interesting to know that midwives had the right to question and search potentially pregnant single women and to physically press them to know who the father was.  And that this was possible since the law didn't want to be responsible for a "bastard."  Mr. Thomas's book gives a whole new perspective on this darker side of midwifery.
My lady Hodgson's serving maid, Martha, is a pistol.  She's brassy and brash, and brave as they come.  Having come up in a hard-scrabble way and having been misused by a criminal master, she is fit to handle the murder mystery and other "women's matters" connected to midwifery that her mistress encounters.  Martha is a wonderful character who could well live in many a mystery novel along with Bridget if it were up to me.  I hope it's in Mr. Thomas's plans.
Set in the times when the city of York, England, was under siege by Parliament against King Charles, we get a darkly drawn picture of the city and its inhabitants.  Law and order were as corrupt then as now.  Women were as mistreated and second-class citizens as we often find today.  And, a midwife was an advocate or an enemy depending upon the circumstances.  A very interesting novel of murder and mystery, and a very interesting time to discover.
This is a book I enjoyed from cover to cover.  It's not your ordinary historical novel, but one that will intrigue and draw you in as you learn about the power of women and the often devastating circumstances of their lives.  An engaging and promising author whose works I look forward to reading in the future!
5 stars                 Deborah/TheBookishDame
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Sam Thomas

Hi Dame - Sorry for coming so late to the party! Between work and the launch I've been slammed.

Thanks for the thoughtful review, and for coming up with such great questions. Nothing is better than a good interviewer!

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