Tuesday, August 17, 2010


O'Brien, Caragh M. Birthmarked. New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/9117047]

Gaia has just finished her first delivery as a midwife rather than a midwife's assistant. The birth goes well, but Gaia must take the baby. The first three babies delivered by each midwife must be surrendered to the Enclave. Every month. And no matter how badly she feels for the mother who loses her baby, Gaia knows she must do her duty. Besides, everyone knows that advanced children, once surrendered babies, who grow up in the affluence of the Enclave are much better off. They never go hungry or thirsty like children in Wharfton often do. With these thoughts swirling in her head, Gaia heads home, only to find no one there. Her parents have been taken by the Enclave. Unlike the baby Gaia has just advanced, her parents need to be rescued.

Set on the shores of Unlake Michigan, this dystopian world has me hooked. Following some kind of environmental fallout that resulted in not nearly enough water to go around, the difference between the haves and the have-nots grows much more pronounced. What used to be the northern United States becomes something resembling a feudal city-state. The have-nots in Wharfton, where Gaia lives, depend on the "good people" of the Enclave for water to survive. And a bleak survival it is. Gaia and her parents do alright; there are only three of them and both her parents work, her mother as a midwife and her father as a tailor. Gaia's new status as a full midwife should have brought her family the Wharfton version of luxury: plenty of water and extra passes to the local entertainment center, Tvaltar. The Enclave also could not exist without those in Wharfton. Though there are bakers, tailors, and other services available right inside the wall, the people of Wharfton provide much of the labor and services the Enclave requires.

And the babies. The people of Wharfton also provide Enclave families with babies.

At first I thought this was going to be a situation like that in The Handmaid's Tale where most women become sterile and those who still can are pressed into service as babymakers. That is not the case here, though why the Enclave needs Wharfton babies remains a mystery for most of the book. Many people on both sides of the wall believe, like Gaia herself, that the children sent to the Enclave are simply lucky, even while their parents are left heart-broken; they have a chance at a much easier life. The Protectorat, the ruling class of the Enclave, have a much more complicated need for children born in Wharfton. Luckily (not really) Gaia is caught pretty early on on her attempt to rescue her parents and so gets to meet the key people behind the "advancement" program.

After Gaia is captured in the Enclave, where she has no right to be, she learns so much more about the history of her society and world than she could have imagined. She learns just how the Enclave uses those in Wharfton and the vital part she and her mother play in that relationship as midwives. She learns that her parents, who she trusted implicitly and thought she knew inside and out, hid very important things about themselves and their family from her. She learns what they hid about her own past. And during all of this acquisition of knowledge, she makes some unlikely allies inside the wall and, of course, falls in love with an especially broody, high-ranking member of the military who seems to hate her and yet find her interesting.

It's a lot for one girl to go through. And it's all a set-up. It was an emotional thrill ride the whole way through with an ending just barely satisfying enough to not make me want to tear my hair out.

I can't wait for Book 2.

Book source: Philly Free Library


Lenore said...

That ending really makes you curse the idea of splitting up books!

Steph Su said...

Luckily for us the publisher agreed to buy the sequel, yay!

Also, yay for Philly Free Library! Will you be at the PAYA Festival in West Chester this Saturday?

Lawral the Librarian said...

Lenore - RIGHT? Although, it takes a lot more to make me pick up an 800 page book with an all-in-one story than it does to make me read 2, 3, 7 200+ page books in row to finally get to the end.

Steph - I can't wait for the sequel! And no, I won't be able to make it PAYA. I'm going to be sitting at work, probably helping returning college students reset their email passwords all day on Saturday... Are you going? It looks awesome!