True midwife drama drawn from history

JILLIAN ALLISON-AITKEN
Last updated 10:00 17/11/2013

BOOK REVIEW: My Notorious Life by Madame X
By Kate Manning (Bloomsbury, RRP $35)

My Notorious Life was inspired by the true story of 19th century New York midwife and abortionist Ann Trow Lohman, better known as Madame Restell; a woman once labelled "the wickedest woman in New York".

At the age of 13, young Axie Muldoon was living a hard life as an Irish immigrant in New York in the 1860s, begging on the streets for pennies for herself and her younger siblings.

When the children are "rescued" from their lives of poverty and sent west to Illinois by a well-meaning Christian philanthropist, Axie is separated from her mother, brother and sister.

However, she ends up back in New York looking for her family. After her mother dies in childbirth, she is taken in by a local midwife, who teaches her the craft of midwifery.

Eventually, Axie becomes the most successful midwife of her era, building a reputation and her business under the alias Madame X.

However, women seek her help for more than just giving birth and, with rules that forbid contraception, many of them ask for her help to prevent pregnancies.

And some seek help in ending their pregnancies.

It's not a choice that comes easily to Axie, but she understands she is the only hope for these desperate women and - becoming more and more convinced that both the law and the church are not always right - she helps them.

My Notorious Life is an intriguing blend of historical drama, family saga and love story.

It isn't the type of book I'd normally pick up, but I'm glad I did.

Mixing history with strong story-telling, documentary producer Kate Manning has come up with a book that is nothing short of compelling.

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