“In the book I’m reading, other characters call the main character the Sagehen. Why do you think they call her that?”
One of our patrons was enjoying The Last Midwife by Sandra Dallas, a work of historical fiction set in nineteenth-century Colorado. Gracy Brookens, the main character, is a midwife in a small mining town. Other characters sometimes refer to her as “the Sagehen.”
Our first guess was that it was akin to calling Gracy a mother hen or a mama bird in reference to her maternal nature. “Sagehen” is an informal word for the sage-grouse, a chicken-sized bird that calls the sagebrush of the American West its home. However, after doing more research, we found an interview with Sandra Dallas on the blog Let Them Read Books where she talks about what inspired her to write her novel. Her main inspiration was a poem called “In These Rude Airs” from Belle Turnbull’s book The Tenmile Range. Dallas met Turnbull in 1963 when the poet was an elderly lady living in a Colorado cabin, and remembers her as “a gentle creature” though her poetry had a hard edge to it. “In These Rude Airs” centers around another midwife called the Sagehen and Dallas created Gracy Brookens as a response, though she’s a much gentler character.