Book Reviews

Book Review: Call the Midwife

Do you ever feel overworked and under-appreciated? Jenny Worth was compelled to publish her story after she read an article that charted midwives’ brief appearances in books, film and TV. Call the Midwife (BOOK ZONE 618.2 WOR) became an instant bestseller, helped in no small part by the BBC series which has been broadcast in America, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand. This Christmas marks the series’ 5th anniversary, and a special episode will be broadcast on Christmas Day.call the midwive

Call the Midwife is exceptionally popular in the US, perhaps because it is in stark contrast to other UK export Downton Abbey

Call the Midwife is set partly in a nunnery, partly on the streets of post-war London. On the surface it is a quaint period piece, designed to provoke nostalgia and promote community spirit. Everyone sits round the table at teatime; children play outside all day; the bunting comes out every occasion. But life on the Poplar estate is still a struggle. The residents live hand-to-mouth, crammed into rotten tenements with rats and fleas. They can be staggeringly racist, and very cruel to women who are pregnant and unwed. Before the NHS it cost a lot to see a Doctor, so many are suspicious when the midwives come knocking! But the nurses slowly win them over with modern medical techniques that save the lives of both mothers and babies.

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Poplar is in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the most deprived areas in the country.    

Call the Midwife can be very critical of “quintessential England”. In one episode, a new father is caught in a gay tryst by police. The local Doctor is highly sympathetic, and gives an impassioned speech before the judge. The man is released from jail, and everyone celebrates. But he has been sentenced instead to “chemical castration”, the same horrific “treatment” forced on codebreaker Alan Turing.  Multiple chapters feature unmarried women, who have their newborns sent for adoption to disguise the mother’s “shame”. Children with disabilities are locked out of sight in care homes- when a teenage couple conceive there, they are forcibly separated. A woman with learning differences is sterilised without her consent. The authorities are intent on keeping everyone “respectable”- like a strict parent, they insist that they are acting in everyone’s best interest. Mental health, sexuality and sexual expression were viewed in a very different light, and Jenny Worth holds nothing back as she describes the fall-out from controversial cases.

Still, the cast of nuns are genuinely endearing. The formidable Sister Evangelina grew up in the East End and understands the problems faced by women there. Christian values underscore the work they carry out, but the nuns are canny and use lots of tricks to keep their patients in good health. The student midwives possess more medical know-how but lack the practical experience they need to gain their patients’ trust. They seem impossibly chipper and cheerful, but many are concealing difficult pasts, from an extra-marital affair and dependence on alcohol, to a childhood spent in a Japanese POW camp.

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The nuns and midwives travel around London on black bicycles, which are frequently in need of repair. It seems they favour the same transportation today!

As the series progresses, characters move on and take on new roles within the community. One nun leaves the convent to marry the Doctor- another midwife decides to become a nun! Life was difficult for working women in the 1950s, as well as for mothers and housewives. Class politics are examined when a titled woman decides to train as a midwife- she is shocked to learn that Sister Monica Joan, who is over 90, went up against the same brick wall in the 1800’s. The original stories from Jenny Worth’s books have been exhausted by the series’ scriptwriters- the next series, due in 2016, will be set in 1961, and focus on the Thalidomide scandal that caused thousands of babies to be born with physical differences.

If you liked Call the Midwife, we recommend:

The article that Jenny Worth responded to asked for a midwife to “do for (her) profession what James Herriot has done for vets”. In Alll Creatures Great and Small, newly-qualified vet-turned-author James accepts a job in a chaotic practise in rural Yorkshire. He is immediately mistrusted by the locals, who doubt that a “city boy” can improve on their unusual farm remedies. Taking care of livestock is a matter of life and death, and James never stops trying to do what’s best for both the animals and the farmers who rely on them. Of course, he fails sometimes, and the books feature a number of distressing deaths. But James also tends to enough pampered pets to fill the book (and its sequels) with silly anecdotes. James’ story was adapted for television by ITV and is up for a remake in 2016. Tune in in the new year to find out how we coped before vaccinations, pet insurance, and Noel the Supervet!

The nurses in Call the Midwife have something in common: they all grew up in the shadow of WWII. In When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, children’s author Judith Kerr tells a story similar to her own. Anna is the daughter of a famous Jewish author, who is forced to leave her home to escape the Nazis. Her family travel through Switzerland and onto France, though Anna takes forever to learn the language. In their previous life, Anna’s family relied on servants, as well as their family and friends. Now they are broke, isolated and suspicious of everyone around them. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is available to borrow from the Norfolk Digital Library.

Charley’s War (BOOK ZONE 741.5941) is a comic strip about an underage recruit in WWI. It ran for years, following Charley’s marriage to his wartime sweetheart and the birth of his first son, until an ageing Charley re-enlists for WWII. The Charley stories waned in popularity after the editors tried to inject a bit more humour- proving there has long been a market for gritty, realistic historical drama.  The entire story is reproduced here in one hardback volume.

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Interested in becoming a midwife? Speak to staff at the Information Store who can direct you to our books on beautiful babies!

References

Goes, G Call the Midwifw accessed at https://flic.kr/p/tVpg49 on 09/12/2015

Joly, G Believe accessed at https://flic.kr/p/4sLUiD on 09/12/2015

spiros Nun on her bicycle accessed at https://flic.kr/p/PtD4B on 09/12/2015

TheGIantVermin This is spinal tap accessed at https://flic.kr/p/nrDiGy on 09/12/2015

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