Reading Decathlon, book 4
Author: Jennifer Worth
Setting: East End London, 1950s
Themes: class, birth, religion, family, women’s rights, medicine
Story: Middle class girl Jennifer decides she wants to be a midwife. After studying nursing, she goes to the East End (working class) of London to live and work with the midwife nuns. The nuns are more compassionate and less strict that the hospitals where she has worked, but she is unprepared for the realities of working class poverty.
Pros: There were so many great characters in here. I loved reading about Conchita Warren, who winds up with 25 children! And I loved reading about the other students and how they got into midwifery. Despite the culture shock, the students try hard to be respectful of their patients.
Setting is also really key. The book is a stark reminder of how much some things have changed for the better, and yet, not everything. The book is set just as the National Health program provides free universal health care, but the plagues of prostitution and drugs are even more of a problem now.
Cons: The author doesn’t seem to know what tone she wants for her book. Is it a feel good but honest sort of James Herriot approach to midwives? Or is it gritty and socially aware? I’m not sure what it was supposed to be. I think most readers who picked it up for the medical memoir aspect are going to be very unhappy with the prostitution chapters. She tells the story of Mary, a young girl fleeing an abusive stepfather, and her seduction into working at a brothel. She ends up pregnant and terrified, and only 15 years old. That is enough to break your heart, but then Worth describes in detail many of the sex acts offered at the brothel. That’s a little too much for me.
I would cautiously recommend this one, but from what I hear, the PBS series is better. I wish I had just watched it instead. 3.25 stars