Monday, June 4, 2012

Book Review: Shadows of the Workhouse

I am back into my non-fiction phase, and Shadows of the Workhouse  by Jennifer Worth turned out to be the perfect book to transition between one genre and the other. It tells the true story of Jennifer’s time working as a nurse in the 1950s, of the life stories of those she met and thus a commentary on the history of what it meant to be a “pauper” in England. I say it transitioned well because, although the book is a non-fictitious account of the histories of the people she met and worked with, the chapters show some obvious embellishment in trying to recapture the details of their lives. It is a true story that reads like a novel, and sometimes made you forget that these things actually happened.

All in all I have to say that I liked the book. It was a little disjointed perhaps, but other than that it was well and simply written. The value of the book comes in the history that it teaches, forcing you to recognize the abhorrent conditions some people lived in even up to the 1970s. The English caste system has left some glaring marks on their society, and it was impossible for me to not draw some parallels to US society (although the country never had a caste system and was in fact founded on principles that repudiated it) of the same time period with regards to their African American population. In both cases these were groups of people that were essentially discarded from society and considered inferior, simply because of where and to whom they were born. Their children suffered poor education, health care and malnutrition, but what little they got was considered by most people to be more charity than they deserved. They both were automatically considered criminals or prone to violence, until a life of crime seemed to many to be the only reasonable option. Once in a while one of them managed to make a better life for themselves through a combination of smarts, luck and an indefatigable work ethic, beating all the odds. Which group had it worse? Before reading this book I would have answered the African Americans of the 1900-1950s, no doubt. Now, although I’m sure the kinds of discrimination they suffered was certainly different in certain aspects, I think you have to read this book and others like it to really see how bad it was for thousands of poor English people. I had no idea, and because of this I think it is an important book to read. We take far too many things for granted these days, something that I am realizing the more I read books of non-fiction, and when we do encounter atrocities in history class we scoff and say “well that was hundreds of years ago! That’s not applicable today!” or “Yea well that happened in rural Africa! That shit doesn’t happen here”. A lot of things we would consider unthinkable now are actually a lot closer to the comfortable shelters we have created for ourselves than we would want to believe, and if we don’t want to go back down that path it is important to realize that.

In conclusion, I recommend the book to a point. I enjoyed it, but I would just as soon read a more comprehensive history of that time as well. It felt more like an easy novel to me than a well researched non-fiction book, but if novels are more to your taste, this might be the perfect instructive non-fiction for you.

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