My Notorious Life by Kate Manning is a melodramatic Dickensian story with sobering and thoughtful messages which still resonate two centuries later when women’s reproductive health and choices are still not necessarily within their control.
Although dealing with serious and controversial ideas, this is first and foremost a fun fast paced book which Kirkus describes as a “rollicking romp through nineteenth century American contraception inspired by the true story of Manhattan midwife.” Axie Muldoon is a plucky twelve year old cast out too soon on the cruel New York streets. Here poverty means starvation, and it means small children begging for scraps in order to stay alive. Axie, her sister Dutch and baby brother Joe were essentially orphans when their mother, with a mangled arm due to an industrial accident and no social safety net, became incapacitated. The younger children were adopted into homes out west, but mouthy Axie and another orphan Charlie were sent back to New York.
Axie ends up the care of an elderly couple – a midwife and a quack doctor. From the midwife she learns the to deliver a baby and terminate a pregancy and from the doctor she learns the formulation for the “Lunar Remedy for Relief of Obstruction”. By means of her skill, her compassion, her sales of powders to end pregnancies, her educational pamphlets about birth control and her husband’s clever marketing skills, she becomes a very wealthy woman indeed. Axie’s enemies abound. She is demonized by the press and persecuted by the police and angry mobs. The medical establishment is deeply threatened by midwives and by women who have knowledge of and control over their own bodies.
Manning took liberties with the true story of Ann Lohman, a nineteenth century midwife and abortionist who became incredibly wealthy and then fell to great depths when she was arrested and the case looked solid. Lohman slit her own throat rather than face prison in nineteenth century New York.
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