by Lissa M. Cowan
Demeter Press, 2013
The “wet nurse” now seems an antiquated term and obsolete profession, but only a hundred years ago wet-nursing was common throughout the world and remains so in many cultures today.
Canadian author Lissa M. Cowan was fascinated by the practice of wet-nursing, particularly the long-held notion that personality, emotions, and morals could be transferred to babies through breast milk. In Milk Fever, her debut novel, Cowan explores this idea in her character Armande Vivant, a wet nurse renown for the magical quality of her milk.
The story takes place on the eve of the French Revolution, 1789. Armande’s services are in great demand as France’s rich grow richer and poor poorer. Armande, unlike most wet nurses of her time, is well-educated and her reputation for reviving sickly infants, suckling them into robust, precocious toddlers, has garnered both awe and suspicion. Through this unusual character, Cowan examines key themes of the French Revolution: shifting power structures, women’s rights, and the role of science versus folklore.
Part historical novel, part mystery, Milk Fever is also an exploration of motherhood and the roles of foster mothers and nursing mothers. The story is narrated by Celeste, a 16-year-old orphaned servant-girl who helps Armande care for her charges and protects her from the ill will of neighbours. In return, Armande teaches Celeste to read and write, and becomes the mother Celeste never knew. When Armande goes missing, Celeste follows a trail of secrets to Paris and into the heart of the Revolution.
While set in the 18th century, Milk Fever raises questions relevant today. Debate about wet-nursing, now called cross-nursing, is on the rise. Organizations such as La Leche League support breastfeeding and screened milk banks, but generally discourage informal cross-nursing. Such arrangements are often short-term and reciprocal (mothers feed one another’s babies) but according to La Leche, donating unscreened milk risks transmission of illness, including HIV, drugs, and environmental contaminants—not emotions or personality, but perhaps our 21st century “milk fever.”
Other new titles by Canadian authors at Demeter Press include Fresh Hell, Motherhood in Pieces and Chasing Rainbows, Exploring Gender Fluid Parenting Practices. See Demeter’s 2013 catalogue for more details.