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Book Review: The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich

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The Midwife of Venice is one of the best novels to be written in the genre of historical fiction since The Girl with the Pearl Earring.

Most of the story takes place in a Jewish ghetto in sixteenth century Venice. A Jewish midwife named Hannah Levi is asked to assist in the birth of a Christian count’s wife who is having a very difficult time with the delivery of her child.

Though it is illegal for a Jew to give medical treatment to a Christian, Hannah decides to take the opportunity to help deliver the unborn child.

Hannah’s life is also at stake because the homemade birthing “spoons” she’s created to assist in her deliveries could be deemed as “with craft” if discovered. If the child or mother is harmed, she will face instant death.

She decides the risk is worth it because she needs the money to free her husband. He is being held as a slave for a high ransom in Malta.

While Hannah assists in the birth, her husband Isaac is sold as a slave to a nun in Malta. He must decide if he will convert, or be traded back into even worse conditions where he could die at the hands of a less gentle master. He fights for his life while Hannah tries to find a way to rescue him before it is too late.

When things go wrong shortly after Hannah helps deliver the count’s child she must make more dangerous decisions that force her to defy her religious beliefs. Hannah must ask her estranged sister for help, after she’s denounced her as dead by sitting “shiva” for her, a customary Jewish tradition when a family member dies. This puts both of their lives at serious risk.

Author Roberta Rich does a great job of describing what life would have been like in Venice in the sixteenth century. The background, in which the story is set, is equally as interesting as the action that takes place. Racism is rampant; the plague is killing a lot of people quickly; and religion and the class system of the time all make The Midwife of Venice a compelling read. It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel.

Rich came across the story while wandering the streets of Venice and wandering the streets of the Jewish Ghetto in Nuovo, Cannaregio. For further reading, The Midwife of Venice includes a list of books from her research.

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