It’s been years since I read the first Call the Midwife book, and I only vaguely remember it. When this finally made its way to the top of my Goodreads list, I was a little concerned that the gap would be a problem. Fortunately, Shadows of the Workhouse more or less functions as a standalone book. Knowing the basic workings of Nonnatus House is useful, but hardly required.
Whereas Call the Midwife was a pretty straightforward memoir of Jennifer Worth’s time as a midwife working among nuns dedicated to providing obstetric care to poor women in postwar London, Shadows of the Workhouse felt a bit like she still had some things to say that hadn’t quite found a logical home in the somewhat more organized first book, and as such they only tie together very loosely, if at all.
The book is divided into three sections – the first tells the stories of Jane, Frank, and Peggy, people Worth came to know during her work who had all grown up in workhouses and whose lives intersected. The second is about a very elderly nun at Nonnatus House who is accused of shoplifting. The third is about her friendship with a lonely, elderly man. She is assigned to treat his severely ulcerated legs and eventually she begins spending evenings drinking sherry with him and listening to his stories.
In spite of the sense that these stories were from the cutting room floor from the first book, it would feel immature and disrespectful to pose that as a criticism. Worth is such a gifted storyteller who has seen and heard so many stories that would have been lost entirely had she not taken the time to share them, reading Shadows of the Workhouse feels exactly like being young Jennifer Worth, listening to Mr. Collett’s stories by the light of the fire and losing track of time in the process. In reading stories of Worth as a young woman absorbing the wisdom and memories of her elders, the reader assumes the same role. It is not a flawless structure for a book, but it truly doesn’t matter. These are memories well worth sharing, and I’m just thankful that Worth found a well-distributed way to do so. The world is richer for it.