About the book
An American classic first published in 1985 and adapted into an Academy Award-winning film, The Cider House Rules is among John Irving's most beloved novels. Set in rural Maine in the first half of the twentieth century, it tells the story of Dr. Wilbur Larch—saint and obstetrician, founder and director of the orphanage in the town of St. Cloud's, ether addict and abortionist. It is also the story of Dr. Larch's favorite orphan, Homer Wells, who is never adopted.
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Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings.
That was a quote from writer Ann Patchett on reading. Reading is one of the best things we can do in our day so in each episode of the We Should All Be Bookworms Podcast, we build our reading habit by taking a quick look at a page-turning, magnetic, universally appealing book that once you start reading, you won’t want to put down. I’m your host, Mykella, a budding novelist and a bonafide bookworm. And today, we’re talking about The Cider House Rules by John Irving.
[PUBLISHER'S SUMMARY] An American classic first published in 1985 and adapted into an Academy Award-winning film, The Cider House Rules is among John Irving's most beloved novels. Set in rural Maine in the first half of the twentieth century, it tells the story of Dr. Wilbur Larch—saint and obstetrician, founder and director of the orphanage in the town of St. Cloud's, ether addict and abortionist. It is also the story of Dr. Larch's favorite orphan, Homer Wells, who is never adopted.
So join me today as we preview this story. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just finished reading your 33rd book so far this year, or you can’t even remember the last time you read a book — this podcast is for you. In fact, if we can change the world one book at a time, then we should all be bookworms.
WHY THIS BOOK
Why this book? I’ve always told my husband that as a black woman, I’m not really concerned about race in this country. Race is so superficial and we as a species are so intelligent that it’s inevitable for us to evolve beyond our current toxic preoccupation with race. Just look at children – they don’t care. And if we as adults continue to allow them not to care, race issues will continue to get better.
But what can easily be reversed in the blink of an eye is equality between men and women. Because sex is not superficial. It’s visible in our brains and in our bones. It’s something that even kids see from an early age and start to internalize and care about deeply. I remember my 4-year-old nephew teasing me for my gentle throw of a ball to him. “you throw like a girl, auntie kella,” Now I was 4 times this kid’s size and could easily outthrow him if I wanted to. But he was so confident in his maleness that he proudly teased me for being what he thought was inherently weaker than he was. I was a “girl.”
I adore this little boy, but his early sense of superiority just confirmed my belief that my status in this country as a woman is precarious.
Let me be more specific. My status in this country and in this world as a free woman who can work, drive, vote, pursue the highest levels of education, run a business, have sex with whomever I want whenever I want, and access whatever type of birth control I want to use, get married or stay single forever – that freedom to move through the world almost fearlessly is precious and new, and fragile.
It's precious because there are billions of women worldwide in 2022 who still do not have those freedoms.
It’s new because many of these freedoms were obtained in my own mother’s lifetime. When my mother was born, it was illegal for a married woman to obtain birth control without her husband’s consent in the state of Virginia. That’s only about 50 years ago.
And it’s fragile because in the blink of an eye, it can all disappear. Look at what happened in Afghanistan last summer with the regime change. Look at what’s happened in my own country, the U.S., just a few weeks ago with the reversal of Roe V. Wade. My freedom to move through my own country fearlessly has just been chipped away. Just last week Senate Republicans blocked a bill that would have shielded women who travel across state lines to get an abortion in a state where it’s legal. I mean – this is really scary. I mean, we’re in fugitive slave act territory here. States want to treat women like property and the federal government, right now, is allowing it. What’s next? Will women be forced to report their monthly cycles to the state so the state can track whether they’re pregnant or not? Will women who have miscarriages be prosecuted because someone who doesn’t like them accuses them of abortion? Will women be forced to carry pregnancies to term even if there are severe problems with the pregnancy that mean the baby (or the mother) won’t survive?
I wish I could say I was more surprised that we’re going down this road.
But I’ve always been pessimistic about the gains we’ve made as women in the last hundred years. I mean, these gains are unprecedented in human history and when you look back at thousands of years of female oppression, compared to a measly 100 years of female empowerment, it’s hard not to be afraid that we’re living in the eye of the storm, a utopian moment for women, and at any moment these freedoms will all be blown away. Is this the beginning of the end of this golden age of equality between the sexes?
My fear for the loss of my freedom as a woman is in part why I started this podcast. Books change minds. And the very first book I wanted to talk about when I launched We Should All Be Bookworms last year was The Cider House Rules. I had heard that the Supreme Court agreed to hear this case on abortion and that it was a bad sign – it meant they were considering overturning or limiting Roe. So I thought, what better book to launch with than an American classic that deals with the theme of abortion. But I decided to wait until the decision was final. Maybe the court would surprise me.
Nope. They did not surprise me. They instead confirmed my fears of a dystopian future for women.
But again – books change minds. And the opportunity that we have with the overturning of Roe is that we, the people, can come out and vote on whether to protect abortion rights and protect women and protect our future. So, books like The Cider House Rules that take this complicated subject where there is no black and white answer and discuss it through an entertaining story with intelligence, grace, humor, and humility – these books are vital. That’s why I’m pushing this book out into our collective consciousness. I hope that it will help quell judgment and promote empathy.
PLOT SUMMARY / WHY YOU SHOULD READ
The Cider House rules is about 2 people. A man named Dr. Wilbur Larch and an orphan named Homer Wells. The story is set in the early 20th century, about the 1920s through the 50s.
When Dr. Wilbur Larch is first starting his career as a doctor, a prostitute from his past comes to him for help with an abortion. He turns her away. She goes to a woman code-named Mrs. Santa Clasu and gets butchered, and ends up back at his hospital barely alive. It’s too late, and he can’t save her. Feeling guilty and wanting to pass on the blame, he visits Mrs. Santa Clause. He’s disgusted by what he sees. She is in the process of aborting a baby that’s too far along to be safely aborted – putting the mother’s life at risk too. She’s using dirty equipment and charges exorbitant rates. And in the lobby, there’s a mother and a young girl waiting for their turn. He tells the mother to leave immediately.
Mrs. Santa Clause yells at him, “ask the little girl who the father of her baby is.” The little girl and her mother, afraid, say nothing. “It’s her father,” Mrs. Santa Clause says. Larch grabs the mother and daughter and takes them back to his hospital. He completes the abortion, but he has to hide it from his colleagues and classify the case as something else. Professionally, it would have been better for his career to let the child risk death with Mrs. Santa Clause rather than give her quality care. But he thinks it’s a one-off case, that he’s absolved his guilt with the prostitute, and moves on.
But doctors who will safely perform abortions are like gold, and word gets out about what he did. Women start following him everywhere. It drives him crazy until he performs one abortion that opens his eyes to his purpose. A high-society family invites him over for dinner. He thinks maybe he’s moving up in the world. But, no, they only want him to perform an abortion on one of their own. As soon as he’s done, they try to usher him out of their house like trash. He sees that this issue is not strictly a poverty issue; it’s just harder to navigate in poverty. So he seizes an opportunity to go off to a distant town and start a clinic and orphanage. The cover story for his new venture is that women who find themselves “in trouble” can go there, deliver their baby, and then leave the baby. He will take care of it until he finds it a good home. But the real story is that Dr. Larch gives all the women a choice. If they are early enough in their pregnancy, he will perform an abortion for them if that’s what they want. Word spreads and the women start coming in droves.
Homer Wells is one of the babies born at this clinic and entrusted to the orphanage. But for some reason he’s unadobtable. John Irving uses Homer’s story to show us how the common alternative proposed for abortion – adoption – is also flawed. Homer ends up in some pretty hilarious and tragic situations in various homes. He’s neglected by some. Outright abused by others. Never fully accepted in any home. And he always finds himself back at the orphanage. Eventually, Dr. Larch, who starts to love homer like a son, stops trying to find him a family and instead starts training him to be an obstetrician, a doctor who delivers babies. He hopes that one day Homer will take over his work.
But Homer, in the way of all children, want to go his own way. He wants to leave the orphanage and see the world. And he disagrees with Dr. Larch on abortion. He identifies with the lost babies as if they were himself. His mother – whoever she was – chose to carry him to term. And so he has life. The little babies are all in the process of developing life and Homer concludes that abortion is killing that life. He doesn’t think it’s necessarily wrong. He’s seen too much of the disappointing life of an orphan and too many sad faces of women to be convinced that abortion should never be done. But he doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. The first opportunity he gets, he runs off with plans to never practice medicine and never come back.
So you have two men here – which is appropriate given the time period and circumstances of the story – I mean, men run the world, right? And in this story, the decisions of these two men affect the lives of hundreds of women. And these two men are on different sides of the debate. And surrounding them are all kinds of circumstances and stories of women and orphans that lend credence to each of their positions.
The Cider House Rules is not a neutral story. It takes up the subject of abortion, turns it around and around, and sets it down on the side of choice. And it does so with compassion for both sides.
But the best thing, in my view, about The Cider House Rules, other than it being an engrossing story about people caught up with this issue, is that it exposes the central truth about abortion, and that is, it will ALWAYS BE WITH US.
It’s not just that we as women should have autonomy over our own bodies and not the state – that’s a vitally important point. But I think a bigger point is that Abortion is just intrinsic to the human experience. It’s always a choice women from all creeds and classes will make no matter what our governments say. As long as we remain the flawed species that we are… and let me be more specific here. As long as there is rape, and war, and famine, and income inequality, and lack of affordable healthcare, and lack of affordable childcare, and as long as there are judgemental cultural norms around sex… as long as we are humans - abortion will never, ever, ever be a choice that is off the table for anyone. Making it illegal will NEVER quell the demand and pursuit and attempt of it. Making it illegal is not the lesser evil. Making abortion illegal does not save lives.
Now - Whether we can live with the permanently connected-to-our-species abortion choice in a balanced way that protects women AND protects children, is the real unanswered question. And The Cider House Rules is a wonderful novel that can help change minds and thus, help us get closer to balance.
The Cider House Rules will take the average reader about 10 hours to read – this is a big one. But if you read for at least 30 minutes a day, you should be able to finish this book in about 20 days, which is only a little more than 2 weeks.
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That’s all for this episode. Thank you for listening. And please remember to make time in your schedule to read. Because of you, we can be one book closer to a better world.