I've recently been riveted by Pat Barker's highly acclaimed Regeneration trilogy about the first world war, which I somehow missed when the books were first published in the 90s -- I'd majored in History at university, mostly of the world wars and, having moved on to teaching small children, I suppose I was all warred out. (You don't know conflict until you have tried to get twenty five-year-olds to sit down and be quiet all at the same time.) I imagine these texts, which are a blend of fiction and non-fiction, are used widely in college history classes today. If they aren't, they should be. They center on William Rivers, a real person -- a noted anthropologist and psychiatrist who treated soldiers, including poet Siegfried Sassoon, for shell-shock. Many of them suffered from fascinating hysterical illnesses such as muteness and paralysis, brought on by prolonged terror.
There aren't many babies in Regeneration and The Ghost Road, the first and last in the series and the two books I've read so far -- they focus mainly on the experiences of men. Interestingly, Barker wrote many books about working class women before turning to this topic and it was only then that she began to receive accolades. I'm planning to search out these earlier books immediately as I'm guessing they may be just as good, if not as appealing to the usual male book critic.
The following description is taken from one of Rivers's memories of his time before the war studying headhunters in Melanesia:
A thread-like wail from the baby Njiru held in his hands, one palm cradling the head, the other the buttocks, a morself of black-eyed misery squirming in between.
Her name was Kwini and her mother was dead. Worse than that, she'd died in childbirth, which made her an evil spirit, likely to attempt to reclaim her child. The body had been dumped at sea, a bundle of rags strapped between the breasts to fool the mother into thinking she had her baby with her but still ... Kwini's failure to thrive was attributed to her mother's attempts to get her back.
She certainly wasn't thriving: skin hung in loose folds from her thighs. Rivers looked round the circle at her grandmother's wrinkled dugs, the flat chest of her nine-year-old sister, the highly developed pectoral muscles of her father. He asked what she was being fed on. Mashed up yams softened by spit was the answer. The tiny hands clawed the air as if she would wring life out of it.
Njiru passed the leaves he was holding several times between his legs and then, stretching to his full height, attached them to the rafters at the gable end, where the scare ghost shivered in the draught. "Come down and depart, you ghost, her mother; do not haunt this child and let her live."
"Will she live?" Rivers asked.
He had his own opinion, but wanted to know what Njiru would say. Njiru spread his hands.
On their way back to Narovo, Rivers questioned him about the ghosts of women who died in childbirth. This was not a rare form of death, since the custom was for women to give birth alone, and there was no tradition of midwifery. Such ghosts could not be named, he already knew that. In the genealogy they were referred to as evil spirits. It had startled him at first to be told quite casually that such and such a man had married "an evil spirit."
They were called tomate pa na savo --the ghosts of the confining house -- Njiru explained, and they were dreaded, since their chief aim was to ensure that as many other women as possible should die in that same way.