Jennifer Worth’s memoirs Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times is a wonderfully-written tale of Worth’s time as a young nurse in post WWII England in the poverty-stricken East End of London. The author takes her readers through various scenarios and instances where she puts her then-new traingin to use in helping the poor residents with pregnancies. While not necessarily a great writer, Worth has an incredibly engaging voice, and paints vivid pictures of women having to give birth in difficult circumstances.
Worth – then known as Jenny Lee – joins a convent, Nonnatus House (named after Raymond Nonnatus, patron saint of childbirth), and makes herself at home with the various nuns and nurses that all work with their community, trying to help the women – many of whom must contend with less-than-ideal conditions like unhygienic homes, undiagnosed STDs, abusive husbands, and various health complications that keep the nurses constantly wary and on guard. Worth writes with knowledge of the advancements of science and medicine, and reminds readers when taking them through various circumstances, how much things have changed for the better since the days of her time cycling through the streets of the East End.
The stories are divided into episodes, each centered on a patient who must contend with some specific problem. For example, Jenny helps out a Spanish immigrant, pregnant with her 25th child; or she helps a teen prostitute who finds herself pregnant and in danger of her pimp’s wrath; a particularly poignant story has Jenny taking care of a devoted man whose beautiful and beloved wife suffers from fatal complications. And while these stories are all tragic and sad, Call the Midwife has humorous moments, too – mainly because the cast of characters that populate Nonnatus House are all colorful eccentrics – some of the more notable people who Worth writes about with affection and warmth include Chummy Browne, a posh nurse, who towered over the other women at over 6 feet tall; Fred, the enterprising odd-jobs man who goes through life trying to luck onto his next money-making scheme; Sister Evangelina, a mulish, earthy woman who is impatient with the younger nuns, and takes to flatulence to impress some of their older patients. It’s important that Worth leavens some of the drama and tragedy with glimpses of humor, and she does so with a careful hand. Another major plus is that Worth has a keen eye for dialogue, able to reproduce the Cockney accents of the residents of the East End with such accuracy, readers will feel transported to her 1950s London.
Call the Midwife is a wonderful story. It’s an important story, too – what women went through in the post war Baby Boom of Great Britain is something that generations after should learn about, to remember just how valuable advances in medicine are. These stories also recall Charles Dickens in highlighting how social and income inequity unfairly burdens people – from memories of the work houses to gritty descriptions of condemned tenements, Worth writes of the urgent need for social justice on behalf of many of the patients she tends to. While Call the Midwife is a lovely book, it’s also a substantive one.
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