“When mountain children asked where babies came from, they were told, ‘The nurses bring them in saddlebags.” (Frontier Nursing Service)
One of the good things about writing historical fiction is that the writer has the opportunity to learn more about the history of our country and can discover some individual real life heroes or heroines. When I was digging around in Kentucky history for a new idea a year or so ago, I found Mary Breckinridge’s autobiography Wide Neighborhoods. Then the more I read about the Frontier Nursing Service she founded in Leslie County, Kentucky, the more intrigued I was with this Appalachian story.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, many women in rural areas of the USA had little or no access to health care. Most women gave birth attended by family members or neighbors. Sometimes a self-trained midwife might be called upon to help. The mortality rate was high for mothers and for babies and young children. One only has to walk through an older cemetery to see many graves for infants and toddlers and to look at family trees to note that men were often widowed and remarried, sometimes several times. Childbearing was a treacherous journey through a valley of death for many women. Mary Breckinridge was a remarkable woman who had a vision of changing all that by bringing professional healthcare to mothers and children in poor areas.
She chose the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky, one of the poorest and most isolated regions in the country, to establish her Frontier Nursing Service in 1925. She thought if she could prove the success of such a service there that others might copy the idea in other poverty stricken areas. She recruited midwives from overseas, mostly England, where she herself had gone to midwifery school, to come work for the Nursing Service in Leslie County, Kentucky. These nurse midwives not only helped deliver babies, they gave prenatal and follow up care for the infants. They also treated many other health problems of the families and gave vaccinations to the children to prevent illnesses. By May 1931, the Frontier Nursing Service had attended more than 7500 men, women and children, including 2000 babies and toddlers. The maternal mortality rate in Leslie County, Kentucky went from the highest in the country to well below the national average.
And they delivered a lot of babies. Whatever the weather, whatever the time of year or day, they saddled their horses and rode up into the mountains to the mothers’ homes whenever someone came for them. Occasionally, they would need to carry a baby back to the hospital in Hyden for some special care. When they did this, they sometimes stuffed the little fellows in their saddlebags to keep them safe along the trail. It didn’t take long for the story to go around to the children that the nurse midwives brought the babies in their saddlebags. Guess that was better than saying the stork brought them.
I was eager to let one of my characters get on one of those horses and be a nurse midwife. So, after a lot of reading and research, I wrote my Appalachian story and invited readers to journey there with me and live the story through Francine and Ben, Woody and Granny Em and more. I appreciate those of you who have already read the story and have shared kind comments about the book.
I had my first book signing for These Healing Hills here in my hometown yesterday morning. Tastefully Kentucky, a neat store in downtown Lawrenceburg, that features great Kentucky food products, including fresh produce, some delicious chocolate, jams and jellies plus much much more including books by hometown people like me, hosted a breakfast party for my readers. It was great having people come to talk books with me in such a fun setting. You can see how the tables were decorated and the food was delicious. It’s been a while since any place in town carried my books for sale. Klink’s Drugstore used to years and years ago when I published books back in the 1980s. That was good then too, but now it’s fantastic to be able to tell local friends they can get my books right here in my hometown.
I did hear from all my winners of the Giveaway Celebration for These Healing Hills. All the winners chose my new book. So that’s fun. I’ll have to think up a new giveaway for here on my blog in a couple of weeks. I am doing guest things out on the internet including the Lone Star Literary Book Tour. They are giving away some nice prizes there too. So far they’ve posted some songs that are important to the story, a character interview (I think you’ll like learning more about Francine), and reviews with more to come. There’s going to be a post from me about mountain lingo, a scrapbooks of photos about the book and me, and an interview. So check it out and maybe you’ll be one of the winners.
As always, thanks for reading. And would you like to see some more archive photos of the Frontier Nursing Service and learn more about its history?