I absolutely loved The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, and not just because I’m pregnant and love birth stories! The best part of the book was the inspiring and thought-provoking glimpse into the history of a subculture.
In her memoir of serving as a nurse in London’s Docklands area in the 1950s, Jennifer Worth does not sugarcoat the desperate poverty and horrifying living conditions of her patients, but she also beautifully documents the uplifting characteristics of the culture: strong family networks, deep community ties, joy and good humor in the face of unbelievable circumstances. Ultimately the book is not about midwifery, although that’s certainly an aspect, it’s about the triumph of the human spirit.
That said, since Worth was a midwife, the book is organized around different women she attended and what their families show about the overall culture and area. I was utterly amazed at the character the women showed: many of them lived with families of 10 or more in one or two rooms, often without running water, most without bathrooms or washing facilities. And yet most of them were cheerful and hopeful, keeping their homes pleasant and families together, helping each other and supporting each other.
There is much I could say about the fascinating aspects of this narrative–about how much I learned about the area and different ways poverty was dealt with by the government at different times, about the cleverness and historical roots of the Cockney dialect, about the history and politics of childbearing, and on and on–but I will just leave you with my hearty recommendation for this fascinating and inspiring book.
Note: The book has been turned into a miniseries, of which I have only seen one episode. The episode was good, although it did condense one story to the point of compromising the impact. You can find it by episode on Amazon, or on PBS.org (at least you can at the time of this writing; PBS tends to leave seasons up for short windows of time and then take them down).
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