"In the midst of life, we are in death." or The Borning Room

Georgina Caroline Lott is eight and a half years old at the beginning of this novel.  The year is 1859, and Georgina, the youngest of five children growing up on an Ohio farm, is terrified of the fact that her mother is expecting another baby some time soon.  She’s certain that she’ll hate having someone replace her as the baby of the family.  The Borning Room is getting ready for the baby’s arrival.  The borning room is a small room located off the kitchen of the house where generations of Lotts have been born and died. 
The Lotts are a family of abolitionists.  When Georgina points out that her best friend, Hattie, told her about the stiff fines and penalties for hiding a runaway slave, Georgina’s father points out that their family “answers to a higher authority.” (Just like the Hebrew National people!)  So a day before her mother goes into labor, Georgina is unsure what to do when she finds Cora, a runaway slave who’d gotten separated from her group, in their corn fields.  Georgina decides to hide Cora in the loft of the barn and feed her and let her rest until she can decide how to point Cora to Canada.  The next day, with everyone out of the house except for Georgina and her sister Lucilla, their mother goes into labor a month early.  Lucilla is sent off on foot to find Mrs. Radke, the midwife who lives ten miles away.  As labor progresses, Mrs. Lott is certain something isn’t right and in her panic, Georgina gets Cora to help out in the borning room.   
Cora recognizes that the baby is breech and turns the baby (doing what is now called a version) before delivery.  And the baby boy, named Zebulon, is born.  Rather than be frightened by what she saw, Georgina is proud to have been there during Zeb’s delivery.  She and Zeb remain extremely close throughout the book, Georgina even becoming something of a second mother to him.  The Lott family is proud of Georgina not only for helping during the birth, but also for aiding Cora.  They feed and clothe Cora until Mr. Lott is able to sneak her under the cover of night to the house of some Quakers who are active on the underground railroad.  
The Lott family is somewhat different in their religious views.  Grandfather Lott (Georgina’s paternal grandfather) believes in worshiping God through nature, a view his son (Georgina’s father) has agreed with.  The mother attends the local Methodist Church, which is fairly fire and brimstone.  They agreed that the children will attend their mother’s church until the age of sixteen, at which point, each of the kids will find their own religious path.  However, every Sunday, Grandfather chooses one of the kids to stay home and worship with him on the land.  He usually chooses Georgina, who has more of a knack than any of her older brothers or sisters for finding God in the sounds of the creek or in the leaves of the trees, or in the taste of an apple.
 
One day when she’s twelve, Georgina is happy to have been chosen by Grandfather again.  They share a close day.  But that evening, Grandfather begins to act strange, and it’s apparent by nightfall that he’s had a stroke.  The bed in the borning room is being set up for him, the first Georgina has ever seen it set up for death rather than a birth.  Grandfather has good moments and bad.  Word is that a portrait artist is in town and the Lott’s decide to have Grandfather’s portrait painted.  Because of Grandfather’s unorthodox view of God, Methodists and other judgmental neighbors (the aforementioned Hattie’s family) stop by under the guise of visiting and giving the family a break from their bedside vigil.  However, their ulterior motive is to preach the evils of hell and his lack of respect for the church.  Grandfather remains true to his beliefs up to the very end.  The portraitist is the only person there to see it, but he tells the family that when the Methodist Minister is trying to convert him, Grandfather would shake his head and point to the vase of wildflowers Georgina was keeping by his bedside.  Georgina is proud that her Grandfather never cracked and had a deathbed conversion.  
Between Grandfather dying and the two eldest Lotts having moved away, Georgina is left sad about her depleted family.  Now fourteen years old, everyone is surprised to find that Georgina’s mother is expecting another baby.  This time, their father, who is in love with all things modern, insists that she is cared for by the new doctor in town.  There’s an uncomfortable meal where Georgina’s Aunt Erna is appalled by this care of a male doctor, and the doctor extols the virtues of chloroform to aid with labor pains. 
It’s a terrible bout of foreshadowing.  Because it’s an overdose of chloroform that kills Georgina’s mother during delivery.  Georgina and Aunt Erna burst into the borning room to see a lifeless Mrs. Lott next to a stillborn baby girl.  Aunt Erna begins to lay into the doctor, before noticing Mrs. Lott’s belly, which is still protuberant.  She reaches up and delivers a twin, a baby boy, nearly dead but quickly revived.  They name the boy Ellison, after Mrs. Lott’s maiden name. 
Fast forward two more years to one cold February and Lucilla, Georgina’s closest sister is getting married.  Despite all the sadness surrounding the house in the years since mother’s death, and the fact that diphtheria is traveling through the town at breakneck speed, she decides to go on with her wedding plans.  It’s a welcome ray of happiness, particularly for the pastor, who has been bogged down with childrens’ funerals of late. 
 
Lucilla leaving to live in the city leaves Georgina the eldest child at home and leaves her the bearing the brunt of Aunt Erna’s criticism.  Aunt Erna, a city woman from Cincinnati, finds Georgina too rough around the edges and unladylike.  Georgina is, but she’s a farm woman, intent on staying on the farm and working hard as a farmer’s wife, meaning she has little use for Aunt Erna’s silly etiquette for young ladies. 
At age sixteen, Georgina has nearly raised Zeb on her own, particularly since the death of their mother.  Ellison has been raised by Aunt Erna (who needed this.  Her own two sons died in the war and her husband died just days after receiving that news.)  One day, Zeb’s teacher, Mr. Bock stops by the house.  Zeb, being a typical eight year old boy, forgot to tell Georgina or Mr. Lott that his teacher would be their guest for a few nights.  (I guess this was custom back then?  To have the teachers stay on with families he taught?)  So there’s a little bit of embarrassment, but Georgina is quick to smooth things over and assure Mr. Bock that though it’s a hard working farm, there is a love of books and music and art in their household.   It becomes obviously very quickly that Georgina is smitten with the twenty one year old Mr. Bock. 
Ellison catches diphtheria, and though Georgina and Aunt Erna disagree on remedies (the ONLY thing they agree on is not calling the doctor who killed Mrs. Lott), Georgina steps back and allows Aunt Erna to care for Ellison.  Ellison recovers.  When Zeb comes down with the diphtheria, Georgina cares for him, though he continues to worsen as Ellison gets better.  Georgina is using every cure, every home remedy she can think of.  He’s moved to the borning room. 
Zeb begins having trouble breathing, and Georgina knows that victims of diphtheria grow a membrane in their throat, making breathing difficult.  She tries to break the membrane by inducing vomiting, but it doesn’t work.  Zeb is clearly on his death bed.  Mr. Bock comes in and sees what’s happening.  He asks for an egg, which Georgina gives him.  He throws the white and the yolk and crushes the egg shell with a rolling pin. Then he puts the crushed shell into his mouth opens Zeb’s mouth and forcefully blows the eggs shells into Zeb’s mouth, breaking the membrane in Zeb’s throat, allowing him to breathe again.  That’s when Georgina and Mr. Bock (whom she now calls Clement) begin courting. 
They’re married two years later, and the following year at age nineteen, Georgina goes into the borning room herself to give birth to her first child, Emmaline Bellflower Bock.  Emmaline after her mother, Bellflower in honor of her nature-loving Grandfather.  She uses the borning room three more times after that to birth Virgil, Jacob and Rachel.  Just as Georgina was the only child to stay home and work the farm, only one of her children, Virgil stayed with his wife and four children, all four of them being born in the borning room.   The borning room also saw the deaths of her father, Aunt Erna, and just a few years earlier, Clement.  
At the end of the book, you learn that this whole book has been a story that an elderly Georgina is telling a traveling portraitist in the year 1918, as she lies on her deathbed in the borning room.  Full circle, baby. 
  • Before Georgina was born, her mother had two stillbirths, then of course Ellison’s twin sister was another one.   So that’s nine pregnancies producing ten children, seven of whom survived.
  •   Perhaps being just over two months away from delivery wasn’t the right time to read a book where so much focus is on the death of three babies and one mother during childbirth.  On the other hand – yay for modern medicine!
  •    I loved this book so much as a kid, I named a kitty cat Zebulon at one point and called him Zeb.
  •    Holy old fashioned names that I love so much.  Georgina, Zebulon, Lucilla, Clement (I swoon for the name Clement!), Virgil, Titus, Hattie, Emmaline. 
  •  I think this book started my love of historical fiction from around civil war period, but not actually taking place AT the war.  I actually read this before I ever read Little Women, and it’s a perfect book to start a kid who isn’t quite ready for the length of Little Women. 
  •  I love the frank look at religion in this book, and it actually probably helped me shape my own (practically non-existent) religious views.  As one half of an inter-faith marriage, I’m happy to report that my Christian husband is more a Christian along the lines of Georgina and her Grandfather (minus the whole nature-loving part) rather than along the lines of Hattie’s family and the Methodist Minister.  Though if he hadn’t been, I probably wouldn’t have married him.  
  •  Grandfather and Father aren’t Quakers, but they’re presented as Quaker-esque, in that they’re hard-working, pacifist abolitionists who get along better with their Quaker neighbors than they do with the Methodists.  Has anybody ever met a nasty Quaker?  I mean, a nasty Quaker NOT named Richard Nixon?
  •  Georgina’s mother hails from “the great city of Baltimore,” and met Mr. Lott at an abolitionists meeting in Cincinnati. While Mr. Lott is more of an abolitionist in the way we like to think of them, Mrs. Lott does remain somewhat frightened of “negroes,” having been in the house as a child when her slave-owning uncle was murdered by one of his slaves.  That pretty much changes when Cora saves her and Zeb’s lives.  Now if only all minorities could go around saving the lives of predjudiced people…..
  • This book was so hard to find.  I hope people keep an eye out for it, particularly parents of young girls.  It’s a short, easy read, (I just read it in less than an hour) perfect for a ten to twelve year old, and a great way to get kids interested in historical fiction.  Georgina is so friggin relatable! 
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About nikkihb

Wife. Mother. Reader. Blogger.
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11 Responses to "In the midst of life, we are in death." or The Borning Room

  1. moxobee says:

    Wow, I'd never heard of this one, but it sounds terrific (if a bit of a downer, what with all the deaths). Thanks for the recap!

  2. Caitlin says:

    Ahhh, yes…the great city of Baltimore. My mom's name is Lucille, and if we have a girl that will be her middle name (Clara Lucille, to be precise. I share your love of old fashioned baby names. Thank god boyfriend does too.)I'll have to try to find a copy of this one.

  3. This book sounds FANTASTIC! I want to read it right now! The whole time I was reading the recap, in fact, I was thinking, "Dude, I hope this never ends."

  4. Anonymous says:

    Ooh! I'd never heard of this one but it sounds really good. Thanks for taking the time to write this up so thoroughly.

  5. RMb says:

    genius! thank you for sharing this one. ive never heard of it, but i'll look for it at my library. 🙂

  6. magnolia says:

    ooh – sounds like a little house book without the revisionist cheer and casual racism. nice.

  7. nikki says:

    I'm so glad everyone thinks the book sounds good – because it SO is! And it's such a short quick read, barely over 100 pages, but just chock full of story, as you can see. I'd encourage everyone to buy it if they come across it. Caitlin – Clara Lucille is a beautiful name for a girl. My son's name (Grady) hit its popularity peak in 1910. And the name we're almost set on for the second boy (August) was at its peak in the 1880's, maybe earlier, but the 1880's is the first decade that there are naming stats available.

    • Molly says:

      Grady is going to be my first son’s name too! My grandmother’s maiden name was Graden, so I’ll be naming him that, but he’ll be called Grady.

  8. Molly says:

    I finally read this and you’re right, it’s damn good. Sad it was short, but I liked it a lot.

  9. rocker 11 says:

    chapter 2 to 3 is to long but otherwize good.

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