What I’m Reading: Call the Midwife

From birthin’ calves to birthin’ babes . . . I must have birthin’ on the brain.

(And no, all you sweet nosies, I’m not preggers. I do, however, have a sister due in March and a sister-in-law due in August, so I hope you will forgive my current fascination with the miracle of new life.)

During a recent visit to our lovely little library, I chanced to pick up Jennifer Worth’s memoir of nursing and midwifery in the East London slums of the 1950’s, Call the Midwife, for three admittedly very silly reasons:

  • The striking period actresses on the cover.
  • The mention of a very interesting-looking PBS tie-in series. (Has anyone seen this? I obviously missed it.)
  • The word “midwife.” 

Whether it’s The Midwife’s Apprentice or . . . actually, I can’t think of any other books with “midwife” in the title at the moment . . . sorry. . . .

The point is, books on the subject of midwifery fascinate me. (This is true even in spite of the fact that all three of my not-so-wee ones were delivered in hospitals by board-certified doctors.)

At any rate, despite having picked up the book for somewhat silly reasons, I really, really enjoyed reading it.

Mrs. Worth is a first-rate storyteller, and the tales she recounts from her first year of midwife training under the Sisters of St. John the Divine (a religious order that began doing proper nursing before proper nursing was even a proper thing and just sort of carried on with it even after proper nursing started to become a proper thing) are alternatively hilarious and heartbreaking.

There’s the story about the nun who establishes rapport with her salt-o’-the-earth patients using fart jokes . . . or sometimes just plain farts. There’s the one about the devastated old woman who haunts the homes of the newly delivered, begging to know, “How’s ve babe?” There’s the one about the prostitute who risks her life to escape a forced abortion and bring her child to term — only to have her baby forcibly taken from her and put up for an anonymous adoption by those who shelter her. There’s (my favorite) the one about the husband and wife whose loving marriage produces 24 healthy, happy children — 25, by the book’s end (take that, Duggars!) — despite the fact that she speaks no English and he speaks no Spanish.

Flowing in, with, and under these gorgeous little stories is a single deeper story: that of Jenny Lee’s gradual spiritual awakening. She comes to the convent a nominal Methodist but a practical agnostic. The lives and witness of the pious sisters, though, coupled with the moments of utter transcendence that she encounters regularly through her work, bring her, slowly but certainly, to faith in God and desire to know Him better. The book ends, in fact, with Jenny Lee opening the Gospels.

Jenny’s spiritual confession isn’t what you’d call beat-you-over-the-head Christian writing (you all know what I’m talking about here). No doubt the BBC and PBS wouldn’t have gone anywhere near the rights to it if it were. Instead, her’s is a natural, organic, unobtrusive-yet-unmistakable expression of belief — a bit of gold thread woven subtly through the entire fabric of the memoir.

It’s a good book, folks.

And hey — guess what?! In looking up the links for tonight’s post, I discovered that Mrs. Worth penned two sequels before her death in 2011. That’s right: Tra-la, tra-lee! It’s a trilogy!

Methinks it may be time to crank up ye olde inter-library loan system . . .

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2 thoughts on “What I’m Reading: Call the Midwife

  1. I some how caught the last part of Call the Midwife on PBS. It was great. Someday I must find it and read/watch it!

    My first child’s birth was typified as sterile, lonely, and institutional. Mom couldn’t be there, My mil was in the hospital herself, my young hubby didn’t know how to process all the changes in our lives, so when he had the chance to play pool with his brother, he took it.

    I loved my hippy midwives, but was sorta afraid of the new gal, a nurse practitioner that came to LG. An implant from NYC (where she had done an astounding 1000 births).she made me feel that I was really with a doctor, rather than my competent lay midwives.

    The three births at home were so different from the first one in the hospital. I sat here for a bit, trying to recapture the emotions, the sights, sounds and of course, the pain. Kon’s was by far the most peaceful….a hard rain on a metal roof. Sarah’s was a mad scramble, we were not ready for her. Crista’s was a surprise as well, I had slept through the easy stuff and woke in transition. Ready to go, very fast.

    I hope this isn’t too …. ? for your blog…

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