The Baby Farm by Karen Harper
(Mira, $5.99, G) ISBN 1-55166-520-4
***
Emma Weston is a certified nurse midwife in the small Appalachian town of Shelter, Kentucky. Emma and her sister were taken in by Delia Lowe, the grande dame of the county, when their father and brother were sent to jail and their mother died. Delia feels that Emma is ungrateful and resents that she has resisted being a nurse at the local health clinic Delia has established. Emma has emerged from her dysfunctional past a strong, determined woman, and she wants to help other women control their own bodies and lives.

Dr. Griffin “Griff” Cusak is a physician Delia has coerced into working at her clinic. He is opposed to a midwife delivering babies because he believes that hospital deliveries are safer even though he recognizes that Emma is well trained in her profession.

Emma is enraged when she learns that one of her clients (she refuses to call them ‘patients’ because pregnancy is not an illness) is now going to the clinic for her prenatal check-ups. She accuses Griff of trying to steal her clients. It is the fifteen-year-old girl’s parents, however, who have taken her to Griff.

Meanwhile, Emma’s brother, who illogically blames her for his father and his being imprisoned, has walked away from a work detail, and she is afraid he intends to kill her. And if that weren’t enough, an old boyfriend simply won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and someone is shooting out her tires and leaving threatening notes and ghoulish offerings on her porch.

Griff accompanies Emma when she goes to the home of one of her clients. The woman is adamant that she will not go to a hospital. Assisting with the difficult but ultimately successful delivery, Griff is impressed with Emma’s skill.

Jidge Collister of San Francisco is distressed over her two-year-old son’s apparent problems and her husband’s lack of concern. She hires a detective to trace the source of her son’s adoption wanting to protect other women from her heartbreak. The detective’s investigation points to several possible sources in Appalachia. The coincidence of the name of the adoption agency, Shelter the Children, and the town Shelter brings her into contact with Emma and Griff.

Several of Emma’s clients, including her cousin and sister, are having difficult pregnancies and are fearful of the outcome. Emma’s suspicions are raised when her cousin disappears and another baby is said to be stillborn. Is it possible that a baby-stealing ring is taking babies from Appalachia and selling them? Can she trust anyone, even the man she loves, in her search for the truth?

The challenge for an author writing a romantic suspense novel is establishing a balance between the romance and suspense elements. In The Baby Farm, romance takes a back seat to suspense. While Emma and Griff are characters a reader can believe would find happiness together, they don’t seem to experience any powerful attraction and share only a couple of embraces and kisses. Their romance seems more the result of proximity than cosmic destiny.

The suspense element, however, is unusually compelling. Too often in romantic suspense novels the villain’s identity is obvious and any wicked plot fairly transparent. Ms. Harper has populated The Baby Farm with a large cast of potential suspects so that a reader can’t be sure who is the culprit until the final scene. (It does, however, raise the question of why Emma would choose to return to the largely hostile Shelter after her nurse’s training.)

The author is to be commended for utilizing the rural Appalachia setting as an additional strong element in her story. In many books the setting is merely wallpaper for the plot and characters. In The Baby Farm Emma is clearly a product of her environment. The characters’ speech, society, traditions, even the characters’ names, all contribute to a forceful sense of time and place.

Readers who enjoy strong suspense novels might want to check out The Baby Farm.

--Lesley Dunlap


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