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Carpe Librum

Bookish conversation with author Samantha Wilcoxson.


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Historical Novel Society

Shadows of the Workhouse - Jennifer Worth 'Shadows of the Workhouse' is a brilliant memoir by Jennifer Worth that carries on her story of working as a nurse in the East End in the 1950s which began in her first installment, 'Call the Midwife.' Her descriptions of hardships endured by those who were forced to enter the workhouses near the turn of the century are heart-wrenching. Though she points out that in terms of social welfare they were well ahead of their time, that doesn't change anything for those people who suffered under the system. The first section especially focuses on people she encountered who grew up in the workhouse system. I found it curious that the second section centered on a woman who had never entered the workhouse, though she would have worked with people who were its victims. The third, and final, section tells the story of a man who entered the workhouse only in his old age after it was converted into a home for the elderly. Therefore, the title is somewhat misleading, but the stories are still amazing.

The story of Jane, Frank, and Peggy growing up in the workhouse together, and the long-term emotional effects that it had on them was full of emotional highs and lows. The reader cheers for their successes and cries for them when they are hurt. This story was the most relevant to the author's theme of the effects of the workhouse on those who were still alive two decades after they were officially closed. (Officially only because it would be impossible to just release thousands of poor people into the streets, so the workhouses carried on under other names with only slightly improved conditions for decades.) After this third of the book, I was ready to give it five stars.

The second portion of the book tells the story of Sister Monica Joan being on trial. Without giving anything away, I will just say that Sister Monica Joan was not one of my favorite characters in this or the first book, so a full third of the book focused on her was a little dreary for me. Also, I failed to see what any of it had to do with "living in the shadows of the workhouse." I'm sure others disagree and found this section amusing, but this is what brought it down to four stars for me.

The final part of the book tells the story of Joe Collett, who is an elderly man added to Worth's nursing schedule because of ulcerated war wounds - not wounds from WWII or even WWI, but from the Boer War in 1899. I greatly enjoyed this story of their growing relationship and his reflections on so much of England's history that he had experienced. She becomes the one bright light in his life, and he becomes like a grandfather to her. Collett's life is filled with struggle, ambition, love, and tragedy. The fact that this man who has already been through so much ends up relocated to a workhouse that has been made into a home for the elderly when the Canada tenements are scheduled for demolition, would make the most hard-hearted tear up.

My only concern is that this book is categorized as a non-fiction memoir, but Worth includes detailed dialogue that she would not have been present for, such as that of Peggy and Frank's childhood. It would seem unlikely that either of these people remembered in perfect detail or that they would share it all with Worth. Some of these scenes read more like factual historical fiction than nonfiction even if they are enjoyable to read.