Gretchen Moran Laskas
Author of The Midwife's Tale
by Bella Stander
You'd never know from her generic Northeastern accent that Gretchen Moran Laskas is an eighth-generation West Virginian. But in her first novel, The Midwife's Tale (Dial Press), the mountain voices come through loud and clear--especially that of early 20th century narrator Elizabeth Whitely, the last of a long line of midwives.
Laskas, 33, was born in Philippi (near where much of the book is set), but grew up around Pittsburgh. "Ours had been the dominant culture in West Virginia," she recalls from her home in Prince William County. "We looked like everyone, were related to everyone and acted like everyone." On a recent visit to Philippi, she went back to her old church. "A car pulled up and a couple my age got out. I said, 'I used to go here when I was a little girl. Is it OK to look around?' And the guy said, 'You're one of the Moran girls, aren't you?' My husband about fell over. He said, 'Everything you've said about life here is true!'"
The incident echoes a major theme of The Midwife's Tale: "The notion that you are known even before you are born, because everybody knows so much about where you came from. That's a wonderful thing and also a hard thing," says Laskas. "It's why so many people leave West Virginia, and so many stay. I have family that will never, ever live anywhere but the state."
Not surprisingly, Laskas felt like an outsider in heavily Catholic, multi-ethnic Pittsburgh, and as a rebellious teen, she wanted to escape from all cultures. But then her maternal grandmother, who had been the family storyteller and genealogist, fell ill, and Laskas realized that someone had to keep the family history. "So I made a deathbed promise that I would write it all down."
Laskas started doing genealogical research, which she shared with her father's mother, who still lives on the family farm. Mrs. Moran is "a fabulous storyteller. She was always telling me the things that don't get into books, the women's stories--the infanticides, the babies born with serious problems. One great-grandmother had 13 children; another had five living children and drank tansy tea to keep the births down."
Though she was enjoying collecting family lore, Laskas had no idea what to do with her life. She recounts a pivotal moment in 1992, when she had a huge argument with her husband, then in law school at Yale (they met at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied English literature and philosophy). "He said, 'What do you want to do?' I said, 'If somebody would give me a chance, I'd be a writer.' He said, 'What's stopping you?' So, as she laughingly sums up, "My life was born in the Burger King parking lot in New Haven, Connecticut." After that, though she wasn't quite sure what she was going to write about, Laskas "checked out, if not read, every book the Yale library had on West Virginia" She jokes, "I had to move to Connecticut to find West Virginia."
In 1996, when she finally began writing what became The Midwife's Tale, Laskas was living in Charlottesville and had a baby boy. "I was stunned by what women said when they knew you were pregnant and going to be a mother. It was this whole other world and I wanted to get it all down. There was no book that focused on women's conversations and the physicality of women's language."
Laskas originally was going to center the novel around a girl who has healing powers (now the narrator's step-daughter). "It was very pompous. I was going to make her a Christ-like figure and have these four women's voices telling her story like the Gospels." In casting about for a female Matthew to recount the protagonist's genealogy, Laskas hit on the idea of a midwife. "She just started talking and never shut up. And soon it was her book!" Three-plus years and three drafts later, Laskas landed a literary agent, who promptly sold The Midwife's Tale to Dial, whereupon she and her editor labored over nine more drafts. "When anybody tells me that editors don't edit," says Laskas, "I break into hysterical laughter."
Here's what Laskas hopes will come of reading The Midwife's Tale: "If you ever drive down a road in West Virginia and see two women sitting on a porch, you should wave, because they'll wave. And I want you to wonder what kind of life they've had, as opposed to thinking that you know and it doesn't matter."
© 2003 Bella Stander
Photo © Zoe Cohen/ZLC Design