Full disclosure: I wasn’t sure I’d like this book when I first started reading it. 19th century fiction isn’t exactly what I’m drawn to, but the subject matter seemed interesting so I thought I’d give it a chance. Man, am I glad I did! This book was a huge surprise, brilliantly told by the point of view of the main character with a style that allows you to really imagine what life in that setting was like in that time period. The Denver Post remarked that the book “evoked a strong sense of time and place” and I completely agree. Sandra Dallas must have done tons of research, and it paid off big time. Steadily paced with suspense, it keeps you guessing and keeps you engaged. The ending was the most surprising of all, and I never saw it coming!

Grace Brookens is a midwife, also referred to as the Sagehen, and she is the only person the women of the small mining town of Swandyke trust with their lives and the lives of their unborn children when it comes time to give birth. Due to a troubled home life, she spent her formative years under the care of the previous midwife Nabby, who loved Gracy like a daughter and  brought her along when she was called on to deliver a baby and became a great help to Nabby as she began to grow older, often assisting in deliveries despite being young. Nabby believed Gracy had a gift for being a midwife, so she taught her everything there was to know about the job and fostered Gracy’s talent. One night when Gracy was only 10 years old, Nabby was called on for a complicated delivery where the life of the mother and unborn and child were at risk. Given Nabby’s advanced age, she feared she wouldn’t get there in time to help and trusting Gracy’s knowledge and experience, she sent her ahead to the house of the woman in labor and told her she’d be there as soon as she could. Despite being terrified of delivering a baby on her own, she was calm and took charge of the situation, realizing the baby was breeched and the mother was at risk of losing too much blood, she began to work, directing those around her and doing her best to calm the frightened mother. Gracy ended up delivering a healthy baby and saving the mother’s life. From then on, her reputation as a gifted midwife gained her the recognition and trust of all in Swandyke and replaced Nabby as the Sagehen after she became too old to practice.

Gracy continued delivering babies, married a man named Daniel, who as fate would have it was one of the siblings of the first baby she ever delivered at 10 years old. They had a son, Jeff, Daniel worked hard and loved Gracy dearly, and they established a pretty good life in Swandyke. Life as a midwife was not always easy though. Sometimes when things were beyond her control, mothers and babies died under her care, and she wore the grief of those she lost like a blanket wrapped around her, weighing on her more heavily with each life she was unable to save. Not a day went by without Gracy thinking about the lost ones, making her even more determined to save the lives of those that she could.

One night, Gracy was called upon by Josie Halleck, the daughter of the town’s richest and most influential man John Halleck, to come help an infant who had just been born but was having trouble breathing. Gracy hurried to the Halleck home, relieved the baby boy of his breathing trouble, and assured his parents that he was completely fine and she’d be back to check on him in a few days. Even though things went well, the interaction with the Halleck family had left her feeling uneasy and was puzzled by their odd behavior. Dismissing her feelings as nothing more than her negative opinion of John Halleck and his pretentious demeanor, she went about her life, putting the experience behind her.

A few days later, Gracy is approached by the town sheriff  and close friend John Miller, Dr. Dickie Erickson who is no fan of Gracy’s role as the town’s midwife, and the town undertaker Coy Chaney. Confused by their interest in speaking with her, wondering why John was being so formal, and what the other two men could possibly want with her, she asks the men what it is they need to speak to her about. The men inform her that the Halleck boy she had seen alive and well just days earlier had died, the victim of murder. Gracy is absolutely stunned when they tell her that the boy’s father had accused her of being the murderer, strangling him with the blue thread she is known to use during deliveries. She adamantly denies that she did no such thing, but they accuse of her murdering the boy to get back at the father for unjustly firing her husband years ago. The very thought of someone accusing her of murdering an innocent baby, no matter what the reason, grieved her. She could not believe what she was hearing. Due to her friendship with John the sheriff, she is able to stay out of jail until her hearing.

News of the Halleck boy’s murder spread like fire through the small town, and people who she thought were her friends began to turn on her. John Halleck was the most powerful man in Swandyke, and because of that, people were hard pressed to believe that he would lie about such a thing even though they knew Gracy to be a warm, kind, and gentle woman incapable of committing such a heinous crime. Women who she had delivered babies for before started turning to the local doctor instead of her, which hurt her the most.

When the time comes for Gracy’s hearing to determine whether or not she would be charged with murder, the whole town shows up and turns the courtroom into some kind of spectacle. After the hearing, she is formally charged with murder, and it is up to her, her attorney, and the help of her friend the sheriff to uncover the truth of the boy’s death and clear her of the charges.

The more they discover about the odd circumstances surrounding the baby’s birth and especially his death, the more Gracy fears for her freedom. As the truth begins to unravel, things become dangerous and the mystery of the murder starts to uncover lies, deception, and a tangled web of dark family secrets.

With surprises and twists at every turn, this story is a cleverly written and engrossing tale.

I enjoyed every minute of reading this book, and Sandra Dallas has a true gift as an author. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Oh the stories scale, I give this book a 9 out of 10: The Willis Tower in Chicago.

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