- Lovie: The Story of a Southern Midwife and an Unlikely Friendshipby Lisa Yarger
Lovie Beard Shelton practiced midwifery in Beaufort County and surrounding communities in eastern North Carolina for just over fifty years (1950–2001). Following her training as a nurse-midwife in Scotland at the behest of Mary Breckinridge of the Frontier Nursing Service, Shelton emerged as a pioneer rural southern midwife: she was the first nurse-midwife to practice in North Carolina and, for a long time, was the only practicing nurse-midwife in eastern North Carolina. Shelton's identity as a midwife was steadfast, as "midwifery was the prism through which she saw the world" (p. 10). Shelton's multiyear collaboration and friendship with Lisa Yarger emerges as an intricate story of the lives and intersections of these two remarkable women.
Lisa Yarger, a former folklorist and journalist, draws her readers into a two-decade journey as she discovers the story of Lovie Shelton, co-creator of "'our book,'" and their unlikely friendship (p. 295). Although the main story is about Shelton, by the book's end we are nearly as well acquainted with Yarger. Through the years, we follow Yarger and Shelton's casual and formal conversations over numerous overnight visits, shared meals, Christmas card and letter exchanges, and car rides to church. In these carefully detailed accountings, Yarger achieves her goal, framing Shelton as a dynamic, authentic, and compelling figure.
In addition to chronicling Shelton's midwifery story, Yarger offers a frank presentation of race and religion within this community. Shelton, an educated white woman, fulfilled a unique role as a midwife for "black, white, Mennonite, and hippie women" (p. 6). Despite the fact that the majority of the babies Shelton delivered were born to African American women, her disparaging remarks toward interracial marriage and biracial children and her confession that "I was also trying to be white, you know, and keep things separated" indicate the social boundaries within which she worked (p. 141). Yarger also recounts many contentious arguments with Shelton regarding religion, [End Page 524]expressing annoyance and agitation at Shelton's persistent evangelical proselytizing. Together, these contestations divulge Shelton's rather static and hierarchical worldview and offer broader understandings of community social norms.
The beauty of the book lies in Yarger's careful intertwining of long transcript passages, birth stories, conversations with Shelton's family and church members, and details of mundane daily activities. However, it is through Yarger's personal interactions and sometimes cringeworthy banter with Shelton that both Shelton and Yarger emerge as real people wonderfully filled with compassion and contradictions. In so doing, Yarger weaves together events and interactions that belie standard linear time sequencing. The result is an engaging documentary-style biography that offers historical insight into changes in medical professionalization in the United States revolving around childbirth practices, the politics of medical care, and the cultural context of gender and race relations in rural southern health care.
This story of a unique southern midwife opens up broader and deeper understandings of rural southern communities and the centrality of religion and race in shaping social relations. Given Yarger's training as a folklorist, additional linkages to critical and feminist medical history resources through footnotes or an expanded notes section would have helped her make broader connections to studies and theories of medicalized childbirth and midwifery that have proliferated over the last two decades. Feeling familiar to oral historians and ethnographers, Yarger's study offers a rare glimpse into the difficulties of researching living people. Importantly, by chronicling Shelton's life through her own voice and actions, Yarger gives evidence to Shelton's self-proclaimed "'I'm a legend down here!'" status(p. 7).