Feb 3, 2011

The Midwife

A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times
by Jennifer Worth

As a young nurse, Jennifer Worth moved into a convent in the 1950's, to become a midwife for the very poor. The dockside slums where she worked were dismal, squalid and packed full of humanity- many buildings were condemned and yet families with ten or more children often lived in just a few rooms. Birth control was non-existent, antibiotics barely making their appearance on the scene; doctors were mistrusted and the hospital setting feared. It was quite a different time period, and Worth really makes it come alive. Her storytelling is full of wonderful characters and descriptions of human suffering that will wring your heart. Two of the stories really moved me- I admit I literally cried tears when I read about the workhouse conditions that had rendered an old lady destitute with grief. And the family with twenty-four children (yes, twenty-four!) whose last baby was born under dangerous circumstances, very frail indeed, kept me breathless on my seat. I was amazed at that mother's love and tenderness for her child, even when her own life was in jeopardy.

There are darker sides, too. Neglect and ignorance, women beaten by their husbands, young girls forced into prostitution, children starving. To it all Worth brought her helping hand, sometimes extending herself beyond the call of duty. She absorbed the love of the nuns who taught her. On first arriving at the convent she (not being a religious sort) found the nuns and their way of life odd, perhaps even amusing, but throughout the book you see her attitude slowly changing towards them. It was just as intriguing to read about life in the convent as it was to read about her visits to patients; the book wasn't all entirely stories of childbirth as I rather expected. The Midwife is really about people, people doing their best and keeping their humor in the worst of circumstances.

I happened to really enjoy the appendix, where the author explains the Cockney dialect as its own language; it was very interesting and I enjoyed reading the sentences as they were written phonetically out loud, to see if I could figure out what they said before she explained it to me! It really added some extra flavor and depth.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 340 pages, 2002

More opinions at:
The Curious Reader
The Book Nest
Ardent Reader


bermudaonion said...

Since it's not ALL about childbirth, the book sounds interesting to me.

Jenny said...

Wow, 24 is vastly too many children. I can barely contemplate ever having three, let alone 24. The convent parts sound really interesting too -- I've got all these books about nuns on my TBR list.

Christina said...

This book has been on my list for a while, but if it hadn't been I would have added it immediately. During the studies for my geography degree, I am been looking at the life of people living in slums/tenements.

Jeane said...

Bermudaonion- It's actually a pretty well-rounded book. I learned so much about the time period and what life was like for the very poor.

Jenny- No kidding! I always thought anything approaching ten kids was extreme, but she talks about it being common for families to have ten or fifteen kids. I was astonished that this woman had so many!

Christina- I think you will find a lot of information here. It's very descriptive, too.

Bybee said...

This one looks incredibly good! Loved your review.

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

This has been on my list for awhile. Love the review. It makes me really want to read it now.

Jeane said...

I just found out that this book has been adapted into a tv series Call the Midwife. I've been watching it, and it's excellent! In fact, I discovered the show, thought the stories were awful familiar, looked it up and then realized it was based on this book.