Midwife Emma Weston grew up in the little town of Shelter, Kentucky deep in the Appalachian Mountains, so she understands the mindset of the people there. However, she and new town doctor Griff Cusack disagree over modern medical practices and how best to handle childbirth. They seem destined to be enemies until Emma reluctantly calls on Griff for help with a difficult birth, after which he gains a new respect for her and her work. Then the two start hitting it off and developing feelings for one another. When two of Emma's patients, one of whom was her best friend, mysteriously disappear without a trace, she can't help wondering what's going on. Despite finding evidence that she thinks may indicate foul play, she's hesitant to call the local sheriff because he's been prejudiced toward her family for years. Believing the state police won't listen either until she has more solid proof, Emma sets about trying to find the missing pregnant women. Griff is the only one she can trust with the truth of what's going on, and the more she investigates, the more it looks like a black market adoption ring may be operating right in the midst of their tiny town. But before she can collect the evidence she needs, her own sister falls prey to the kidnappers who seem all too willing to kill to protect their secret, leaving Emma and Griff in a race against time to save not only her sister, but the baby she's about to give birth to, without getting killed themselves.
The Baby Farm is a stand-alone suspense novel that follows Emma, a midwife in rural Appalachia. She grew up in the tiny town of Shelter, Kentucky and after training as a midwife, she moved back to the place of her roots to serve the women there. Lately she's been running up against opposition from Griffin, the new doctor who runs the local health clinic. They clash over child-birthing methods, but after Emma reluctantly calls Griff to help with a difficult delivery, he gains a new appreciation for her skills. The two begin to catch feelings for one another, but Emma is embroiled in the disappearance of two of her patients. The more she searches for them, the more evidence she turns up of a possible black market adoption ring in which the poor women of her community are being preyed upon and pressured to give up their babies. She doesn't feel comfortable taking her concerns to the local sheriff, because he's had it in for her family for years. She also feels she can't go to the state police or FBI without more solid proof, so she continues the investigation on her own. Eventually she comes to trust Griff enough to let him in on her suspicions and he offers to help. But when it looks like her own sister may have fallen prey to the kidnappers and that they won't hesitate to kill in order to keep their operation a secret, Emma finds herself in a race against time to save her sister's life and keep her baby from the clutches of the evildoers, all while hoping not to get killed in the process.
Emma grew up in the Appalachian mountains and knows the people there well. Her father and older brother were abusive, and ended up murdering a neighbor, a crime for which her father is currently in prison, but her brother has recently escaped, leaving Emma worried that he might come after her or her younger sister, Sissy. Their actions left Emma's mother to raise her and Sissy alone, but she died shortly thereafter in a tragic accident. After that, they were taken in by local heiress, Delia Lowe, who finished raising them, but she was a controlling and manipulative woman who expected loyalty in return for helping them. She and Emma aren't on good terms because Emma decided to become a midwife and open her own practice rather than a registered nurse working for Delia's new health center. Delia brought in Griff, a city doctor whose ideas about childbirth clash with Emma's more holistic approach. However, Emma is dedicated to doing what's best for her patients, and when presented with a possible breech delivery, she asks for Griff's assistance. The experience gives them a new appreciation for one another, which leads to an acknowledgment of an attraction and the beginnings of a romance. Meanwhile, though, two of Emma's patients have disappeared on her. When she brought her concerns about the first woman, who was also her best friend, to the local sheriff, he all but dismissed her, and since he harbors a grudge against her family from years ago, she feels like she can't take any evidence she finds to him. With Griff becoming the only person she feels she can trust, she sets about investigating on her own with his help. It leads to all sorts of intrigue, danger, and possible suspects that she'll have to sort through in order to find the culprit. But when Sissy, who is pregnant, appears to be the baby snatcher's next target, it will take all of Emma's skill to keep her alive during a high-risk delivery, save her baby from being kidnapped, and keep herself from getting killed, too.
Emma is a tough lady who's been through a lot in her life, but rather than running from the place that brought her so much pain, she dedicated her life to helping the women in her hometown. She not only assists them with delivering their babies safely, but she also counsels them in hopes of keeping them out of situations like the one she grew up in. I had no doubt that she always had the best interests of her patients top of mind. That also extends to trying to figure out what's going on when her clients seem to be targets for what looks like a suspicious, underground adoption ring that appears to be selling babies to rich families. I thought the author did a good job of offering plausible reasons why a mere midwife would be doing her own sleuthing, given her history with local law enforcement and how skeptical the state police were when she first contacted them. It made the amateur investigator aspect of the story more believable. She also heroically risked her life to save her sister and the baby from the kidnappers' clutches. Overall, I thought Emma was a strong and likable heroine.
Griffin is ostensibly the hero of this story, but his POV scenes are few in comparison to Emma's. He was brought to Shelter by Delia to run her new health center. He has a mysterious past that makes his reasons for moving from the big city to the middle of nowhere murky. When Emma first finds out what Griff is keeping from her, she isn't sure if she can trust him anymore, but ultimately it isn't as bad as it seems at first glance. Initially Griff is a little bit of a jerk when it comes to not trusting Emma's child-birthing skills. The book is set in 1995 and was published in 1999. I had both of my children during that time frame, one of which was attended by a midwife, so I know that they were definitely growing in popularity around that time. Not to say that midwives didn't experience discrimination by doctors, but at times, it seemed a little overblown. After all, she isn't just a lay midwife, she's been fully trained in nursing school, so Griff's distrust in her was a little annoying at times. However, he did lighten up after assisting with the difficult birth. Even after their relationship gets off the ground, he, at times, seemed a little less than supportive about both her practice and her investigation, but he does come around. Once that happened, I liked him a lot better, but between his irritating behavior early in the story and him being a somewhat underdeveloped character, he won't go down as a favorite hero.
The Baby Farm is classified as a romantic suspense (it says so right on the spine). However, the romance is extremely subdued and only accounts for perhaps about ten percent of the entire story. Griff and Emma basically start out as enemies, since they don't really get along. Then they rapidly become friends with little transition into that. They only share one moment that I could call a date and it was just getting some food at the local Tastee-Freeze. There are few getting-to-know-you moments before Emma thinks that she's in love with Griff. There are no on-page love scenes and very little sexual tension. Their relationship just wasn't well-developed at all and I felt virtually no emotional connection between them. It's almost like the author wasn't really comfortable writing romance and only included a touch of it to make the book marginally qualify as a romantic suspense. The only positive thing I can say on that front is that Griff and Emma share a few kisses and their relationship has an HEA ending.
I honestly think the book would have been better served if classified as a women's fiction suspense, because those elements were quite strong and the reason I was still able to give it four stars despite being disappointed with the romantic aspects. Ever since having my own children, I've had an interest in childbirth and midwifery, so I enjoyed those parts of the story very much and could tell that the author had done her homework to present some realistic pregnancy and birthing scenarios in a fair amount of detail. These elements would lend themselves well to the women's fiction genre. The suspense portion was also very well done. The author set up quite a number of suspicious characters that kept me guessing throughout as to who was guilty. I didn't start to figure it out until very near the end and even then I didn't correctly guess everything. These parts engaged my attention well and I found them to be quite enjoyable. If the book hadn't been called a romantic suspense, then my expectations about the romance wouldn't have been so high and I probably could have given it a better rating. But as is, I feel like I would be doing a disservice to my fellow romance readers by not pointing this out. This was my first read by Karen Harper, and I liked it well enough to be open to reading more of her books in the future. I'll just have to lower my expectations when it comes to the romance.
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