In general, Call the Midwife: a memoir of birth and joy and hard times seemed to be well liked. Reactions were positive, even inspiring one of us to read the other two books in this series, Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End. The first member to speak said that he had expected to be overwhelmed with descriptions of childbirth but was surprised to find the book interesting and engaging. Another member mentioned that he had been impressed by the writer’s easy style and believability.
Since several, but not all, members have seen the PBS television series that is now in its third season, the discussion was a bit uneven, including some comparisons we could not all share in understanding. However, the dramatization brings up an important issue regarding fact vs. fiction – something we often take for granted when we see words like: based on a true story, non-fiction, or memoir. The author’s style is analytical, including a lot of social commentary and gritty details glossed over and changed in the television series. Yet it is also a memoir, written 50 years after the fact. An article in the Daily Mail quotes the author’s daughter Suzannah: “All the eccentricities of Sister Monica Joan in the books . . . are based on Monica Merlin.” * British actress Monica Merlin, not an Anglican nun. The group did not seem concerned by this fictionalization, but perhaps it informed the thoughtful and lively, even occasionally contentious discussion that followed.
Discussion points included: No woman should have 25 babies. She was a prisoner. Breastfeeding is not a reliable method of birth control. All mothers are biologically driven to protect their children. Everyone is different. Expectations for fathers were different then. No baby as small as described could have survived. No baby would be forcibly removed from a mother in the United States, even in the 1950s. Yes possibly. Biology shouldn’t matter in the treatment and love for a child. He not only accepted the child but forgave his wife. Many, many, different, similar, and passionate opinions. I cannot stress enough how valuable all opinions were and are! Everyone was impressed by the author’s willingness to admit her failings, and we all thoughtfully considered our own history of judgment and enlightenment.
Before the meeting, one member’s first response was that the book was sad. Stories take us so many places – real and imaginary. Inside and out. We cry, laugh, and learn. From the Land of Oz, to the docks of East London, to a post apocalyptic Colorado. Where will the Whitney Book Bistro go next? Join us and find out!
* ”Cor… the midwife! An affair with a married man at 16? Pass the gas and air: It’s the wild past of Call The Midwife’s creator, by her own family.” By Jo Knowsley. January 25, 2014. MailOnline. Web accessed 5-11-2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2545981/Cor-midwife-An-affair-married-man-16-Pass-gas-air-Its-wild-past-Call-The-Midwifes-creator-family.html
- Other works discussed (all non-fiction):
- The life and times of Call the midwife : the official companion to seasons one and two by Heidi Thomas
- The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
- Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
- Historical non-fiction by Erik Larson