Call the Midwife: Farewell to the East End
by Jennifer Worth
This is the final book in Worth’s trilogy of memoirs recounting her time as a nurse/midwife in post WWII London. The first book, Call the Midwife (originally titled simply The Midwife), introduced us to the cast of characters who would populate all three books: the author’s fellow nurse/midwives as well as the Anglican nuns at the convent out of which they worked. A rich history of the people and the area of that time period is given, as well as numerous stories of births, both harrowing and joyful. The second book, Call the Midwife: Shadows of the Workhouse tells more about the Workhouses of historical England, and the people who grew up in them and how their lives were impacted.
In this final book, we bear witness to more incredible stories of birth, as well as a saga of tuberculosis
Nurse Jennifer Lee in the 1950s
which would often wipe out entire families, and back-alley abortions sought by desperate women who already had more children than they could feed, living in poverty. Trademark to Worth’s writing is her ability to tell these stories and bring them utterly alive, and every emotion is elicited: joy, sorrow, compassion, anger, grief.
Having now read all three books, I had become quite attached to Nurse Lee and her colleagues, mentors, and patients, and I was truly sad to turn the last page. In her epilogue, Worth tells what happened to each of the main characters in the series, and sadly, most of them died by the time she had written it. Sadly, too, Worth herself died shortly after being diagnosed with cancer only two years ago. Farewell to the East End is apropos; reading this final book does feel like a farewell.
This book – and the entire trilogy – will stay with me for a long time.
Call the Midwife: Shadows of the Workhouse
by Jennifer Worth
This is actually the second book in a trilogy written by Jennifer Worth, recounting her time as a nurse/midwife in 1950s London. I read the first book, originally titled, simply, The Midwife, several years ago – back before the PBS television series Call the Midwife was born (which I still have never seen, as I’m not much of a television watcher). I don’t know if the title of the book was changed after the TV series became a hit, or before, but it is now titled Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times. I discovered a long time ago that Jennifer Worth (who died in 2011, apparently) had written two follow-up books to her original memoir, The Midwife, but they went out of print before I could ever get my hands on them, and it was only recently that I realized that they are available, just under the new title, Call the Midwife.
I couldn’t wait to dig into this second book once I discovered it, remembering how much I loved Worth’s first book, and expecting more wonderful birth stories, being the birth-story junkie that I am. However, Shadows of the Workhouse does not contain a single birth story. Rather than focusing on her career as a midwife (which, as it turns out, was relatively short-lived; I was disappointed to learn that midwifery was not her “calling,” but rather something she tried her hand at for a few short years. Her true passion, apparently, was music, and eventually, she left midwifery and nursing to study music), this book recounts the lives of several people with whom Worth became acquainted with during her time working in London’s East End who had grown up in workhouses. These are stories of almost unimaginable suffering, but also resilience and love and the strength of the human spirit. My disappointment at the absence of more stories of birth was quickly replaced by an appreciation for Worth’s gift for recounting all sorts of harrowing stories and moving the reader deeply.
I have no idea how much the PBS series follows Worth’s books, but whether you’re a fan of the TV show or not, I really recommend the books. I have the third book in the series and will be reading it shortly.