Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Journey to Time Past: Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth
Penguin, 2002

Oh how wildly different the world was 60 years ago, especially in East London. Poverty was high, work was hard, and families were huge, all things that kept the Sisters at Nonnatus House busy. When young nurse Jenny Lee joined as a midwife, she had no idea what she was in for having grown up in a privileged West End life. But her years in the docklands and among these people would have a profound impact on her forever.

I'll confess that I decided to read this memoir because I quickly fell in love with the TV series it inspired. Here, Jennifer Lee Worth focuses on a handful of the people she came to know at and through Nonnatus House. Sisters Monica Joan and Evangelina couldn't have been more different, but both taught Jenny much about life in general. Fellow midwife Chummy was larger than life in more ways than one, but her big size also meant that she had a tremendous heart. Fred was the convent's handyman and was generally always up to something to try to earn money, though it may not have always been legal. And then there were the many many patients and cases that Jenny worked with at all hours of the day.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this memoir, if I'm completely honest. The book opened my eyes to the incredible poverty of the time, but also the strength of the human spirit. Many of these people were flawed, and they all certainly had their own crosses to bear. Some were successful, some were survivors, and some were victims of an unkind fate. It was also interesting to see how the National Health Service was radically changing some of these circumstances, especially since that program is something that has not only survived but thrived and is still a huge source of pride for the British people today.

My primary criticism, therefore, lies with Worth's writing style (which I feel especially awkward saying since Worth passed away in 2011). I agree with other reviews I've seen on this book that the several chapters regarding a young prostitute called Mary were unnecessarily detailed. As a reader, I easily could have gotten a sense of what the girl saw and experienced another way, and given the way Worth wrote about other situations, since most of the Mary story is told second-hand, I do wonder how much embellishing may have taken place. Also, I felt that at times Worth was a contradiction. One moment she would be saying how she had no idea the world could be so cruel to these people and how she admired them, then the next she seemed to imply how lucky these people were to have a someone like her around to help. Similar sentiments sometime arose regarding her views on the religious life she was surrounded by but wasn't really a part of. Tighter editing could have avoided this.

All in all, I found this book to be an interesting one time read from my library. Should the urge strike, I could see myself checking out the two follow-up books Worth wrote about more of her time as a midwife.

Comments welcome, and, as always, happy reading!

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