Call the Midwife
A True Story of the East End in the 1950s
Merton Books (UK), 2002

Shadows of the Workhouse
Merton Books (UK), 2005

Farewell to the East End
Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK), 2009

by Jennifer Worth

Reviewed by Barbara Free

     These three books have all been bestsellers in Great Britain, but had not been much publicized in the United States until the fall of 2012, when a PBS television series, also airing on the BBC, began, based on episodes recounted in the books. Originally planned as a six- to eight-episode series, it was such an immediate hit in both countries that a second season was produced and aired in the winter and spring of 2013. Viewers are wanting still more.
     The program has become popular with a wide range of people of all ages, both men and women. Although some of it is fairly graphic depicting labor and childbirth, as well as life in East London in the late 1950s, many parents have chosen to watch it with their teenage and even pre-teen children and then discuss it.
     The television episodes are taken from all three books, not necessarily in chronological order, and in some cases stories have been combined or somewhat fictionalized, or details have been softened somewhat to make thee story a little less uncomfortable. However, overall, the television series is true to the books, and very moving to many viewers, who have reported watching each episode several times, in re-runs or on alternate PBS channels. The actors involved have said it has been a very moving experience for them, too, with everyone on the set in tears at times, as a birth scene is enacted.
     The author, who is also the lead character in the series and is represented by a voice-over as an older woman, died in 2011, prior to the series being aired, so we shall not have a fourth volume, unfortunately.
     When the television series began, this writer had not heard of the books, but later discovered the first volume when a fellow O.I. member got it and passed it on. Then Volume 2, Shadows of the Workhouse, and Volume 3, Farewell to the East End, appeared in the bookstore and a book catalog. All three are exciting reading, and all three do contain graphic descriptions of not only pregnancy, labor and childbirth, but the extreme poverty and widespread abuse in London in the 19th and 20th centuries, up through the 1970s. The implementation of the National Health Service made enormous differences in health care and general well-being of the population after it was started following World War II.
     These books, and the television series, are relevant to adoption issues in several ways, particularly much of the material in Volumes 2 and 3. England had a history of adoption not being legal, to protect inheritance laws, although most of the people had nothing to leave anyone. There was also a long history of extreme poverty, lack of healthcare or even basic sanitation. After World War II, this was acute in the East End of London, because it had been so heavily bombed due to its proximity to the docks and shipyards. People lived in condemned buildings for many years.
     England also had a long history of children being removed from parents, from the royal families on down to the very poorest of folks. Sometimes they were abandoned by mothers, or even couples, who could not feed another child (contraception also being somewhat illegal and fairly unreliable), or because the mother was not married. Other times, the children were forcibly removed, sometimes to be placed with other families, including some who took money from the government to feed them but did not even feed them, letting them die, and then not notifying the government, so that the money would continue to come in. Many, many children were separated from their parents in the workhouses, which were really slave-labor institutions, with horrendous conditions of malnutrition, neglect and physical abuse. Several stories of these situations are in Volumes 2 and 3, and a few are in the television series, or are alluded to therein. Abortion was illegal and, for the poor, unsafe. The wealthy have always had somewhat better options but not much. Nevertheless, abortion did happen, as did infanticide, neglect, abuse, starvation, and incest. One must remember that the stories recounted in this series are true and represent only the ones the author personally knew about.
     Some children were relinquished, willingly or not, and placed with loving, capable families. Some died in workhouses, in foster care, or at home. Some the nuns and midwives lost track of. Several of the nuns at “St. Nonnatus” (a pseudonym the author uses for the order with which she worked) had worked in the East End, in the Poplar neighborhood, for many years. The young nurses, who trained there as midwives, were deeply affected by their work experiences and relationships, including the author. She eventually left nursing and pursued a second career in music, as well as marriage and children, before she wrote these books. They are so well written, so riveting, that one wishes she had started earlier and written more.
     Many readers and viewers with adoption connections have felt a deep connection to Call the Midwife for various reasons. Reading the books, particularly, will give any reader a fuller understanding of poverty, resilience, despair, orphanages, work houses, and adoption, no matter what one knew or thought before. They are not material for the squeamish and probably not for one’s unsupervised nine-year-old, but they are compelling reading and viewing for anyone with an interest in families, society, history, and justice.
     The television series is not currently scheduled, but many are hoping for a third season. Seasons 1 and 2 are available through PBS (800-645-4727 or shopPBS.org). They are also in the BBC America catalog, at BBC AmericaShop.com or 800-898-4921. The books are available at Barnes & Noble or at Bargain Books, Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers Company (www.HamiltonBook.com) or Amazon. Even if you’ve seen all the TV episodes, you’ll find the books even more interesting, with more stories. These are keep-you-up-at-night reading!

Excerpted from the July 2013 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2013 Operation Identity