"Caul Baby," | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
The Melancon women live in a stately but disintegrating house in Harlem and are known to have money. For years they’ve sold their special product to Harlem residents. Now, thanks to Wall Street connections, obtained through a fellow church member, they sell to white people, especially the ones gentrifying the Harlem area—those willing to pay many times the typical asking price for an unusual product.
The four Melancon women sell their caul, remnants of the amniotic sac with which they were born. Most babies shed this thin membrane during birth. The Melancon women come from a tradition of women whose babies are born covered with part, or all, of the caul. They give birth at home to protect the caul. Some of it is removed from the face, but the rest stays on the body.
As they age, the Melancons cut small pieces of caul from themselves and their children, selling it for thousands. The caul is presented to desperate buyers in beautifully wrapped boxes. Possessing a bit is believed to bring health and good luck.
Landon, a churchgoing intermediary, becomes involved with the Melancons, convincing them to sell to the highest bidders. The bidders are, of course, white customers Landon knows from Wall Street.
When Josephine Melancon rejects a plea for a piece of caul from a local woman named Laila, who’s endured numerous miscarriages, the woman suffers a stillbirth and blames the Melancon family, as does the Harlem community. The Melancons become pariahs in the neighborhood.
Landon remains in Josephine’s life as her lover, thus maintaining his financial lifeline. When he convinces his young but ambitious goddaughter Amara to give birth in his home to hide her pregnancy. Landon gives the newborn, most of her caul intact, to Josephine.
It hurts to have a piece of caul removed, but in this book of magical realism, caul has miraculous properties that instantly heal the skin. Because of this, the Melancon children are confined to their homes for most of their lives. They are too valuable financially to risk an outside accident in which their caul could be discovered or damaged.
Amara, whose baby was given to the Melancons, becomes a powerful public district attorney. She plans to use her clout to seek revenge on the Melancons for the harm they did to her Aunt Laila. Amara remains in the dark about her child being given to the Melancons.
Few male characters are introduced in the book; the women are the strength of the family, the caul a symbol of strength, vulnerability, protection, innocence and sacrifice. I highly recommend “Caul Baby” for its portrayal of enduring women who support each other in spite of everything, and for its insight into a medical phenomenon that has a wide, varied history.