Sara Says: Call the Midwife
Let your neighbors ruminate on ins and outs of the fictional village of Pagford, invented by J.K. Rowling. I’ve just come across a writer who knows the pettiness and peculiarities, the wonderful weirdness of British social life even better. Her name is Jennifer Worth, a nurse who wrote Call the Midwife, a memoir about the slums of London’s East End right after WWII.
You might vaguely have heard the book’s title–except you might have thought it was “only” a TV show; starting last Sunday, PBS began airing a mini-series based on Midwife and its two sequels; the series, like the books, are hugely popular in the UK. As, I predict, they will be here, too: in a week or two, those of us who stood around arguing the merits of Downton Abbey or Girls, will be chatting each other up about the warm hearted nuns, the bicycling midwives and the brave and pregnant “guttersnipes” of the late 50s.
Worth’s is that rare book that perfectly, naturally, evokes a specific time and place while also having a feeling of timelessness. She makes you care about the women she and her fellow midwives visit, either before they give birth or during it. (Worth’s encounter with the surprisingly young woman in her 24th pregnancy – yes, you read that right, though Worth was sure someone had mistakenly put the wrong number on the medical chart–is both terrifying and laugh-out loud funny.) But what’s great about this book (and, I imagine, the unfolding miniseries) are the characters. My favorite: the giant, mannish midwife who learns to ride a bicycle as some street kids taunt her. (That one of those tormentors becomes the midwife’s protector is a lovely surprise–as is the fact that that guy eventually grows up to become, thirty years later, one of Princess Diana’s bodyguards.) Full of charming anecdotes that feel fresh and never charm-by-the-yard, the book also manages to teach you something without making you feel taught–about what happens during birth (spoiler alert: it can be pretty unpretty), about health care in general, about “feminism,” well before they invented the word. In other words, If The Paris Wife made you feel a bit smarter about Hemingway, this one makes you wiser about… well, about humanity.
Not to mention what it says about the book business, and karma, and believing in yourself, among other old fashioned ideas. As it happens, Jennifer Worth, a nurse then in her 50s, wrote a book about allergies and sold it to a tiny publisher in the UK – and fell in love with writing. Over the next ten years she began compiling tales of her post-war experiences as a midwife; as a courtesy, that small house also published that book. Nobody much read it… until an enterprising agent stumbled on a newspaper article about Worth, tracked down the manuscript and resold it as a trilogy in 2007. Suddenly, in her 70s, Jennifer Worth, now sick with cancer, was a bestselling author; all three midwife titles reached #1 on the UK bestsellers lists and were sold to a production company. Though Worth didn’t live to see the miniseries – she died in 2011– she did know that the whole world was about to discover her life story.