In To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey, one of the main characters, Sophie, discovers she is pregnant. She has mixed feelings when she learns of her pregnancy. She and her husband, Colonel Allen Forrester, are thrilled, however the doctor seems worried and refuses to give her any information other than telling her she must not travel – not with the expedition to Sitka, nor by train back to her mother’s house in New England. As an amateur naturalist who was looking forward to her part in the adventure, she is greatly disappointed about not being allowed to accompany the expedition even as far as Sitka, and by refusing to allow her to travel by train either, the doctor effectively isolates her among strangers.
One thing I thought odd was that Sophie writes of her surprise at the pregnancy, saying, “after these months of failure,” but according to the newspaper clipping included earlier, the couple had only been married September 10, and the journal entry is dated the end of January, which is only four months. This seems a short time to refer to as “months of failure.” (Especially when it turns out that her periods are inconsistent and she is actually four months pregnant when she learns of her condition!)
Having had miscarriages of my own, I sympathized with her panic when she begins bleeding. “I am to call for [the doctor] if the bleeding does not stop. He says there is little else to be done, except to rest and wait.” Despite all our medical advances, (which seem huge when one reads the quote from the Midwifery book) this advice hasn’t really changed since 1885. Rest and wait.
If such bad omen visits upon you and signs of abortion appear, the usual way is to lay toast sopt in Muskadel to your navel. This is good medicine. But to take the womb of a hare beaten to powder, half a dram, in Malmsey each morning is far better. –From Midwifery: A Pocket-Companion for Women in Their Conception, by Benjamin Fielding, student in physic and astrology, London, 1743.
Then, of course, the doctor gets all paternalistic on her, berating her for her temerity in wanting to know more about her pregnancy. She has discovered he’s been keeping from her the fact that she probably has a divided uterus, which complicates her pregnancy and may make it a risky one. His thought was to take the worry on himself and spare her, since there is nothing either of them can do to lessen the risk, but she resents being treated as a child, though she is understandably frightened.
I was curious about her condition, but felt I didn’t know much more after I read the Wikipedia page on bicornuate uterus in humans. However, I did notice that, while this is considered a deformity in humans, it is the natural formation for many mammals.
On instinct, I looked through the list of animals who naturally have a bicornuate uterus, but didn’t find anything thing that clicked. Then I realized what I was looking for. I searched again and found it: “The structure of the uterine system in female bats can vary by species, with some having two uterine horns while others have a single mainline chamber.”
Despite my excitement about the odd link, however, it came to nothing. The bats were never mentioned again, nor was her condition other than a completely natural mourning and insecurity over not being able to bear children. I’m not sure whether I was reading too much into this oddity, creating a link where none was meant to exist, or if it was meant to remain a mystery.
It’s not the only time I experienced something like this in this book.
The raven appears at Sophie’s window twice, heralding the onset of bleeding the first time, and a full-fledged miscarriage the second. Shortly after Sophie’s miscarriage, the Old Man returns Sophie’s comb to the Colonel. Then, a few days later, the Colonel finds the spruce tree baby – it calls out and only he can hear it. It is birthed in blood, complete with an umbilical cord, from among the roots of a spruce tree, which he has to cut and pry apart to make room for the child to emerge.
I was totally prepared for there to be some mystical connection between Sophie’s lost child – perhaps stolen by Raven? – and the mysterious infant found and birthed by the Colonel. Perhaps he would bring it home and they would raise it as their own? However, despite the initial connection of being the only one to hear its cries, Allen Forrester doesn’t bond with the child, and it is described as being obviously Native American in coloring and features – it is not his.
Which made me wonder if it was Raven’s. When I was reading about Raven’s mythology, I came across several stories that involved Raven impregnating women by transforming himself into something that they subsequently eat – dust or pine needles. Then the women give birth to him, whereupon he becomes a very demanding child who tricks them into giving him something that he then gives to the native people and the world – like the sun, moon and stars.
There were enough similarities that I kept waiting for some hint that Sophie was pregnant again, or that the child they found was really Sophie’s. But again, all my speculations and wild theories came to nothing, and, in fact Raven faded out of the book. In her Acknowledgements, Eowyn Ivey says the spruce root baby was inspired by “Xay Tnaey” by John Billum in Our Voices: Natives Stories of Alaska and the Yukon. I’m not sure whether to be disappointed or not…