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Shadows of the Workhouse: Call the Midwife    by Jennifer Worth order for
Shadows of the Workhouse
by Jennifer Worth
Order:  USA  Can
Ecco, 2013 (2008)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Shadows of the Workhouse is the second in the Call the Midwife memoir trilogy that shares the 1950s experiences of Jennifer Worth. In her twenties and from a middle class family, she went to work as a midwife in the impoverished East End of postwar London. She and her young colleagues lived and worked out of a convent, Nonnatus House, 'in the heart of the London Docklands' at a time 'when the scars of the devastated city could be seen everywhere'.

Shadows of the Workhouse is divided into three parts, the first telling of Workhouse Children whose paths later crossed that of the young midwife. The author educates us on the history of the workhouses, in one of which Jane, Peggy and Frank grew up - 'the impact of having spent their formative years in such an institution was almost unimaginable.' Jane's bright spirit was broken early, while orphaned brother and sister Peggy and Frank were separated for many years. All three of them eventually led happier, though unconventional lives and we read their stories here.

In the second part, The Trial of Sister Monica Joan, we read about the proud, elderly, once brilliant Sister after she was accused of shoplifting, and later of a more serious crime. She came from an aristocratic family but rejected that life for an independent one, free from the male dominance that had her aunt locked in an asylum after her husband tired of her. Fortunately Sister Monica Joan was found to be innocent of the charges against her.

In the third part of the memoir, we read of the friendship that developed between the author and The Old Soldier, Mr. Collett, a Boer War veteran. She treated his leg ulcers regularly and soon began to share a sherry with him in evening visits, where he talked about his time in South Africa and the losses incurred by a system in which clueless young aristocrats purchased their commissions as officers. Jennifer Worth accompanied the old guardsman to a regimental dinner. She worried about him when his tenement was demolished and he was forced to move, and she mourned his death.

These memoirs are must reads for anyone who enjoys the PBS Call the Midwife series as they not only fill in the details of the author's East End experiences, but also offer a fascinating and very balanced view of the history behind them. The final episode, Farewell to the East End will be out this spring - don't miss any of them!

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