Ever since I finished reading Call the Midwife, I’ve been dying to get my hands on one of the sequels. Despite only having seen about half of the first season, I decided to forgo any and all spoilers and interlibrary-loan a copy of Part II: Shadows of the Workhouse, once again, by Jennifer Worth.
Shadows has a very different tone and focus than its predecessor. The foreboding title notwithstanding, it ventures away from some of the more lighthearted tales of Jenny’s adventures to some darker places further afield from Nonnatus House, from the workhouses of turn-of-the-century London to war-torn France. Most of the book has little to do with Jenny and the other nurses. The first and last sections focus on characters who are mostly tangential to the plot of the book and to Jenny’s life, but appear in other contexts both in the previous book and on the TV series.
The first section revolves around Peggy, a cleaning lady at Nonnatus House, and her relationship with Frank, a sometimes-handyman for the ladies. I actually just watched this episode last week, so I knew what happened with them, but the TV show did not figure in the third character in this section, Jane, and kind of gave most of her traits to Peggy – unless there is a episode with Jane in it that I have not seen yet, and I’m not going to go looking in an episode guide at the moment because I want to remain surprised. The Peggy/Frank/Jane story line really brought to life the horrors of the workhouse. Before reading this, I had no idea how squalid it really was; it’s almost as if living on the street would have led to a better and healthier life than being trapped in the bug-infested, lifeless, prison-lite conditions of the London workhouse. Yes, I understand that it was an effect of social services, and one of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” things, but it obviously spiraled out of control, leaving its mark on people like these three. Ultimately, in both the book and the TV series, I thought that this story line was more bittersweet and heartbreaking than troubling. Peggy and Frank’s situation was so unique that I was just glad that they were able to lead the lives they led.
Skipping ahead to the third section, we meet Joseph Collett, an elderly, ulcer-stricken army veteran with whom Jenny takes a shine to; not in that way, rather in more of a grandfatherly way. The harshness of Collett’s life and the circumstances surrounding his death were counterbalanced by the sweetness, honesty, and loyalty Jenny showed him in his waning days. I think I said this before, but of all the midwives, Jenny is my least favorite (ironically, since she’s the main character and all) but in this vignette both on TV and in writing, I came to admire how she treated this man and actually cheered for her. Good on you, Jenny. The TV episode about this vignette is absolutely riveting and does Collett justice, as well as driving home the importance of honoring all veterans of wars, young or old, American or British.
And then there’s the middle section: a quasi-comedic look into the hijinks of Sister Monica Joan. I was sitting in Short Stack last night as I read this part, and I couldn’t put it down. I won’t tell you what happened, but it’s a nail-biter. Just when you thought that Sister Monica Joan couldn’t get weirder…she does. This section really brings out the individual qualities of the ladies of Nonnatus House, from plummy Chummy to goody-goody Cynthia to mischievous Trixie to the kind but judgement-questionable Jenny. Overall, the real winner was Sister Julienne and her equanimity, in addition to the deus-ex-machina twist, she’s more and more like Meryl Streep’s character in Doubt. The moral of the story: the real S.M.J. must have been the biggest pain in the ass to put up with, but one of the best to watch if you don’t have to watch her.
I’m ready for Part 3!
Some new words I learned:
- Serried – packed in rows
- Turbot – a type of European food fish
- Quinquereme – an ancient Roman galley with five oars on each side
- Golliwog – a type of black doll
- Drachm – another word for dram
- Flavine – a type of antiseptic
This book review has been brought to you by PBS and the Pennsylvania State University-Mont Alto Library