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The Midwife (book review)

March 31, 2009

The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times
Jennifer Worth
Penguin
April 2009 352 pages $15.00

Jennifer Worth became a nurse and midwife in the 1950’s. She writes a memoir of working in the poor neighborhoods near the docks of London’s East End. She lived as a layperson in a convent, working along with nuns who had dedicated themselves to the practice of midwifery in the poorer neighborhoods. Because most births took place at home, part of a visiting midwife’s job was to make sure that a baby’s birthplace and home were clean enough to protect the mother and baby’s health. The squalor of some of the overcrowded tenements and clinic hours packed with unwashed bodies was difficult to read in spots, because Worth describes it so vividly.
Even so, this richly varied collection of stories could have been twice as long, and would still be a wholly engrossing memoir. The mothers and their families, and the nuns of Nonnatus house are true characters- funny, wise, honest, hopeful and real. The eccentric nuns could furnish enough tales to fill a standalone book, and one that I’d love to read. Daft but poetic, Sister Monica Joan oscillates between fey wisdom and the tantrums of a spoiled child. Grouchy Sister Evangeline has a fierce temper, but an earthy sense of humor and surprising empathy. (Also, the ability to fart on command.) There’s something about this that reminds me of James Herriot, some of the same warmth, though the harsh city realities are a far cry from Herriot’s usual bucolic landscape.
A fascinating perspective on learning to be a midwife, peopled with excellent characters, Worth’s memoir is anchored, sometimes too firmly, to its sense of time and place. Worth confines her story to London’s docks in the 1950s, a time of rigidly prescribed roles for women and attitudes about sex and bodies that predate the more permissive ideas of the 1960s and beyond. At some points, the passage of time can be hard to track in Worth’s narrative. Had there been room for Worth to reminisce and interpret more slowly, some of her pondering about religion (inevitable when living in a convent and working alongside nuns) might feel more organic to the story, instead of forcibly examined at intervals. Those introspective moments, though cogent, sidetrack from the main narrative, I think, and might have worked if given the larger room of an ongoing series of books. Left to develop in something closer to realtime, Worth’s understanding of faith would work alongside her work narrative better, instead of feeling contrived.
My mother read the book after I did, and focused more on the bigger picture, the points Worth was making about society, women’s roles, and public health, then and now. “It was not only entertaining but informative. She evokes the sense of community in the East End neighborhoods. Even poor people who had nothing shared what they had. Once builders and developers started destroying that community, that is when crime and real, desperate poverty started to destroy the bonds between people and families. Instead of reaching out to help each other get by- that’s when it really became a slum.”
We’d both be ready to read more, if Worth continues to recount her work in midwifery.

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