If you’re like me, you have been immensely enjoying the Call the Midwife series on PBS. You have especially been enjoying the fact that it makes you cry every week and that Chummy is awesome.
Because I was enjoying the series so much, I decided to read the book of the same name by Jennifer Worth.
This is an exceptionally readable book and the pages do fly. It paints and evocative and painful glimpse into post-war London in the East End where Nonnatus House nuns and midwives reside: at the ready with their surgical kits and bicycles to ride through the slums and provide medical care to women. Often, they are called for other nursing duties which show the bleakest and most dire circumstance.
Certainly the war has ended; but East End London by the docks is in shambles. People are poor, unemployment rates are high and living conditions put one in mind of the Tenement Housing of early 20th C New York City (as one example). In this case, many buildings are almost uninhabitable due to bomb-wreckage; but the population and the poverty means that residents will take whatever they can get for a roof over their head and a chance to raise their families.
Families were large. This was, literally, a baby boom. Husbands were back from the war, times were high ( as were spirits) and there was no birth control available. Not until the 1960s would family sizes drastically change. 8-10 children was not remarkable or unusual in this day and one anecdotal family boasts 25 children: all living under the same roof, all born to a gorgeous Spanish woman who does not share the English language of her husband.
The book works well because rather than following a traditional narrative, it offers exposing snapshots of a time at once nostalgic and horrifying. Amidst the chaos is the sentimental overload of new life; amidst the destruction and the bomb-ravaged docks is the hope for a future of peace. Vignettes featuring memorable characters knit together Worth’s patchwork quilt. The characters are colourful, often funny, sometimes heartbreaking. This is truly a book where you will laugh and cry at the same time. Viewers of the series will not that in many cases they condense threads of multiple narratives into a few composite characters. Here, the circumstances are fleshed out in a much more haunting and disturbing fashion.
Perhaps the most vivid and emotionally gut-wrenching story belongs to widowed Mrs. Jenkins: a toothless old woman who roams the streets: a harbinger of the births and deaths to come. No one seems to know her story, why she tramps through the streets with a limp, using the gutters as a latrine, her boots scraping the cobblestones, her toothless gums snapping at the passersby. In a thousand years I couldn’t have fathomed the horrific circumstances which wrought her present state. It will crush you. Not unlike the horrible story of young Irish Kathleen: a girl at the wrong place at the wrong time, it will leave you slack-jawed at human atrocity occurring in our parent’s and grandparent’s lifetimes. You would think, that with the war would come harmony and brighter, bluer skies. But, human depravity knows no change and spans through decades, it would seem.
I quite enjoyed Worth’s easy writing style, her observational humour and her almost-Dickensian flair for painting the most bizarre and eccentric characters with a flash of compassionate light.
I highly recommend this book; but advise most that it is medically graphic, contains language questionable for a book set in a nunnery and is crass with sexual content.
I quite loved it, however, and regard it as one of my favourite books this year.