Tuesday, October 30, 2012

CALL THE MIDWIFE by Jennifer Worth

"Call the Midwife," a BBC miniseries about intrepid nuns and nurses in London's East End in the 1950s, was the UK's most popular TV show in 2012, with even more viewers than last year's wildly popular "Downton Abbey."

I had not heard of the TV show three weeks ago when, browsing in a Chicago bookstore, I noticed Jennifer Worth's memoir by the same name. Always on the lookout for cheerful stories, I jotted down its title so I'd remember to look for it at my public library.

The book did not disappoint.

In 1965, my parents and I spent a summer in Bracknell, a middle-class suburb about 35 miles west of central London. Some 10 years earlier, Jennifer Worth had been working as a midwife in the London Docklands, about 6 miles east of central London. Only 10 years and 40 miles separated my comfortable (even though it lacked central heating and had altogether too much cabbage) world from the world Jennifer served:
I often wondered how these women managed, with a family of up to thirteen or fourteen children in a small house, containing only two or three bedrooms. Some families of that size lived in the tenements, which often consisted of only two rooms and a tiny kitchen.... Washing machines were virtually unknown and tumble driers had not been invented.... Most houses had running cold water and a flushing lavatory in the yard outside.
It was an area of bombed-out ruins from World War II air raids. "Knifings were common. Street fights were common. Pub fights and brawls were an everyday event. In the small, overcrowded houses, domestic violence was expected." Certain streets were well known as centers of prostitution.

So why am I calling this book cheerful?

Because Jennifer tells so many stories about people who work hard, who love one another, who survive against incredible odds, who welcome new life, who do their best.

Because even her heart-breaking stories--the teen-aged Irish prostitute, the weird old crone who hangs around when babies are due--reveal sensitive humanity under the off-putting exteriors.

Because her nuns, from bawdy Sister Evangelina to spacey Sister Monica Joan, are a hoot.

Because she's so good at describing all her characters, most notably Camilla Fortescue-Cholmeley-Brown ("just call me Chummy"), drolly played by Miranda Hart in the TV series.

Because she included a 13-page appendix "On the difficulties of writing the Cockney dialect."

Because Jennifer's storytelling shows her living by the philosophy she says she learned from a dying nun: Accept life, the world, Spirit, God, call it what you will, and all else will follow.

 "Call the Midwife" is being shown on PBS stations Sunday evenings from September 30 to November 4, 2012. If you've missed some episodes, you can get them online until December 3. Here's a link to Episode 1.

1 comment:

Rachel Marie Stone said...

Yes! It's SO cheerful in spite of its grittiness, or maybe because of it. I loved the story of Conchita Warren refusing to relinquish her tiny premature baby to the hospital. LOVED this book and am eagerly awaiting the Kindle availability of the next two in the trilogy!