At midnight, the dogs, cats, and rats rule Venice. The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin. Shapeless matter, perhaps animal, floats to the surface of Rio di San Girolamo and hovers on its greasy waters. Through the mist rising from the canal the cries and grunts of foraging pigs echo. Seeping refuse on the streets renders the pavement slick and the walking treacherous.
It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah.
Hannah Levi is known throughout sixteenth-century Venice for her skill in midwifery. When a Christian count appears at Hannah's door in the Jewish ghetto imploring her to attend his labouring wife, who is nearing death, Hannah is forced to make a dangerous decision. Not only is it illegal for Jews to render medical treatment to Christians, it's also punishable by torture and death. Moreover, as her Rabbi angrily points out, if the mother or child should die, the entire ghetto population will be in peril.
But Hannah’s compassion for another woman’s misery overrides her concern for self-preservation. The Rabbi once forced her to withhold care from her shunned sister, Jessica, with terrible consequences. Hannah cannot turn away from a labouring woman again. Moreover, she cannot turn down the enormous fee offered by the Conte. Despite the Rabbi’s protests, she knows that this money can release her husband, Isaac, a merchant who was recently taken captive on Malta as a slave. There is nothing Hannah wants more than to see the handsome face of the loving man who married her despite her lack of dowry, and who continues to love her despite her barrenness. She must save Isaac.
Meanwhile, far away in Malta, Isaac is worried about Hannah’s safety, having heard tales of the terrifying plague ravaging Venice. But his own life is in terrible danger. He is auctioned as a slave to the head of the local convent, Sister Assunta, who is bent on converting him to Christianity. When he won’t give up his faith, he’s traded to the brutish lout Joseph, who is renowned for working his slaves to death. Isaac soon learns that Joseph is heartsick over a local beauty who won’t give him the time of day. Isaac uses his gifts of literacy and a poetic imagination—not to mention long-pent-up desire—to earn his day-to-day survival by penning love letters on behalf of his captor and a paying illiterate public.
Back in Venice, Hannah packs her “"birthing spoons”—secret rudimentary forceps she invented to help with difficult births—and sets off with the Conte and his treacherous brother. Can she save the mother? Can she save the baby, on whose tiny shoulders the Conte’s legacy rests? And can she also save herself, and Isaac, and their own hopes for a future, without endangering the lives of everyone in the ghetto?
The Midwife of Venice is a gripping historical page-turner, enthralling readers with its suspenseful action and vivid depiction of life in sixteenth-century Venice. Roberta Rich has created a wonderful heroine in Hannah Levi, a lioness who will fight for the survival of the man she loves, and the women and babies she is duty-bound to protect, carrying with her the best of humanity’s compassion and courage.
1. How does Rich bring the worlds of sixteenth-century Venice and Malta to life, using the senses of sound, smell, and taste? What passages were most viscerally powerful for you?
2. Do you think the Conte’s love of his wife is genuine? Why or why not?
3. Rabbi Ibraiham warns Hannah that by choosing to save the life of her husband, she is endangering the life of the entire ghetto. What do you think of this statement? Is she making the right choice? What would you do?
4. Discuss the uneasy truce between the Venetian Jews and Christians. Do you get a sense that the ghetto gates are there to keep the Jews in, or the Christians out?
5. As he is being auctioned, Isaac stands up to taunts, with the rationale that “He who tolerates insults invites injury.” What do you think of this sentiment?
6. Sister Assunta offers Isaac a slice of apple as she attempts to coerce him into conversion. Hannah inhales the scent of oranges in the bedclothes as a means of conjuring Isaac’s memory. Discuss these and other passages in which Rich employs the symbolism of fruit.
7. Discuss the character of Sister Assunta. Did you feel she was a sympathetic character, or a villain, or something in between? Do you think her business deal with Isaac will succeed? Why or why not?
8. Who do you think is the wealthy benefactor who has collaborated with Rabbi Ibraiham to ransom Isaac, as long as he divorces Hannah?
9. Discuss the means by which Hannah and Isaac cling to their faith, despite the many temptations to convert. How are their approaches to the Jewish faith similar, in your opinion? How are they different, and why?
10. The title of the book, as well as the location, period, and other details (such as the character of Jessica) appear to be a spin on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. If you have read this play, discuss some of the ways Rich mines this literary territory.
11. When terrified about his escape, Isaac considers the words of the philosopher Maimonides: “The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.” What do you think of this idea?
12. Hannah hangs the shadai around Matteo’s neck at his birth, as an amulet of protection. Does it ultimately work? If so, how?
13. What do you think the future holds for Hannah and her family?
14. Can you imagine this book translated into film? What details would you keep, and what would you change? If you were casting the film, what actors would you choose?