The Point of No Return


Katherine Hauswirth


Have you ever had to make a hurried decision in a moment where both the hurry and the decision are unavoidable? When the stakes are high it’s agonizing to be under such duress, but there is not even time to fully register the emotion. You might say the reptilian brain—the one that is focused on basic survival—kicks in, and the higher thought centers are whisked along for the ride. It’s a moment where you hope your intuition is very astute; it could well become a moment that you question for the rest of your life.

Each of my reads this week centered on a forced, hasty choice preceded and followed by waves of sickening dread. In the first, midwife Sibyl Danforth has caught more than five hundred home-birthed babies when she finds herself coaching an especially difficult birth on an icy Vermont night. The phones are down; the road is impassable. Suddenly the eyes of the birthing mother, who has pushed and pushed with little progress, roll back in her head. Her body sags into a stupor, and as the minutes tick by Sibyl determines that her patient has died, that there is no hope of resuscitation. So Sibyl weighs outcomes quickly and makes that first long incision that will let her make her way to the still living baby, before it’s too late. The bed is soaked in blood.

Novelist Chris Bohjalian establishes a detailed portrait of Sibyl and her family in Midwives before telling the whole story of that fateful day and its drawn out aftermath in the courtroom. Sibyl is fiercely committed to her calling; she trusts that nearly every birth will proceed gradually along a natural course and that backup will always be available if something goes wrong. Sibyl and her husband have hippie roots, and while their progress toward middle age and their parenting of daughter Connie have rendered them a fairly traditional family unit, this family doesn’t think and act on automatic pilot. Sibyl’s earthy and independent mentality and her unconventional career choice dominate the family’s life.

Everything looks different after a tragedy of this magnitude, and the event not only has Sibyl questioning her judgment but also creates an avalanche of emotion for all involved, especially teenager Connie, who narrates the novel. In a second, suspenseful peak, Connie is also faced with a hasty decision that will affect her mother’s future. Bohjalian paints all of this expertly against the metaphoric backdrop of Vermont, often breathtakingly beautiful but also so potentially harsh and unforgiving. The characters also reflect this mix, and those who are there for this shaken family are the green hills and brilliant foliage that counter the chilling greys and unpredictable mountainous terrain through which this wounded group must travel.

The heart wrenching circumstances in Sarah’s Key take place decades earlier, in 1940s Paris. The frightening power of Hitler’s regime has extended its tentacles into the ranks of French police, who round up local Jewish families on command. Ten-year-old Sarah is sent to get her things and in a moment of panicked protection she hides her four-year-old brother in their secret hiding place. The family is carted away, and Sarah literally holds the key that will free her brother.

It may be her fear for her brother that saves Sarah from extermination, because she is driven to find her way back to him. Kindness is shown to her along the way—a policeman looks away while she escapes, a family in the countryside takes her in despite the risk—and she hopes that perhaps her brother, too, has been helped.

The novel is made more powerful by the juxtaposition with modern-day Paris that Tatiana de Rosnay inserts into the story. It is jarring that families are living ordinary lives right where the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup occurred, and many have no knowledge of this blot on France’s often proud history. But it’s also comforting that the protagonist in the modern-world chapters, Julia, feels compelled to find Sarah and learn the outcome of her story, to give witness to this atrocity that so many have forgotten. Like Sibyl in Midwives, she won’t be subdued by the preference some have to deny away the “mess” of history. And here, also, is a pregnancy that is both a promise and a life-changing challenge for Julia, a struggle with which she’s contending as she tracks down Sarah’s family. De Rosnay at first ties the stories of two eras together with simple coincidence, but this initially thin connection builds until they’re inextricably intertwined and the distance of time no longer seems relevant.

Both Midwives and Sarah’s Key contain elements of suspense, and they’re both worth the read to find out what happens to Sibyl and her circle, and to Sarah and Julia and theirs. Taken together, the books remind us of several truths we already know just from living life: None of us are immune to tragedy, and the burden can be excruciating when we’re forced to make a decision around which a fateful outcome pivots. There are some points along our paths that are truly points from which we can never return, at least not as the same person we once were. If we are lucky, we have people who stay beside us as these decisions and their outcomes unfold over time, people who will witness our best intentions and hold for us and our families the hope for gradual healing.

Books mentioned in this column:
Midwives by Chris Bohjalian (Vintage Books, 1997)
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007)  

Katherine Hauswirth is a medical writer by day and a creative writer by stolen moments. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the author of the book Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey and contributed to the anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Katherine has been published in many venues including The Writer, Byline, The Christian Science Monitor, Pregnancy, The Writer's Handbook, The Writer's Guide to Fiction, Chronogram, Women of Spirit, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poetry Kit, Eat a Peach, Lutheran Digest, and Pilgrimage. A Long Island native, Katherine lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Harriet’s Voice: Home Base for Writing Mothers is her personal website. Contact Katherine.



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