Sunday, January 27, 2013

Waiter, what is that nonfiction doing in my soup?

Crazy as it seems, I have just finished not one but two NONFICTION books.  They even have a historical bent.  People who don't know me from my history days and flight therefrom will wonder why this is a big deal, but let me tell you, the idea of nonfiction is usually enough to send me into a quiet fume.  Feels like a job I was happy to leave, and it doesn't feel like the relief that reading is supposed to be.  You have to read the acknowledgements first, and keep flipping to the end notes to check sources.  Takes the pleasure clean away.

But you now, this trip to World War Two and back again was absolutely worth it, and I'm here to tell everyone that you should read Unbroken (2010, Random House) by Laura Hillenbrand and Call the Midwife (also known as The Midwife) (2002, this edition 2012, Penguin) by Jennifer Worth.  I ended up reading these more or less concurrently, and as the first is set mostly during the War, and the other a decade after, not to mention in different theaters, the experience provided a fresh immersion in a formerly favorite topic.  I'd just forgotten how much I enjoyed reading about this war. 

To say that one enjoys reading about World War Two feels uncomfortable, especially when considering what Hillenbrand's hero went through.  Unbroken is the story of Louie Zamperini, one-time bad boy from Torrance, CA, turned track star in the 1930s.  Louie performed heroically at the 1936 Olympics, and is looking forward to 1940 but of course the War intervenes and he ends up a bombardier in a B-24 Liberator in the Pacific theater.  While on a search-and-rescue mission for a downed plane, Louie's own plane crashes into the ocean.  Only he, Phil the Pilot, and Mac the Tailgunner survive the crash, out of the nine or ten men on board.  They manage to get themselves onto a life raft, and the odyssey begins.  Forty-six days later, they are rescued by the Japanese, and over the next two and a half years, endure horrific treatment in Japanese POW camps.  Louie lives to tell his tale to Hillenbrand, who knows a good story when she hears one (this is the gal who brought us Seabiscuit), and does her signature outstanding job of exhaustively researching the details and setting it all in historical context.  You'd have be a pretty bad writer to screw this up, but Hillenbrand's efforts bring out the epic in this tale.  She talked to other former POWs, Japanese guards, read countless gov docs, reports, journals, and had Louie himself who fortuitously kept a diary - a diary!  In the world of historical sources that is priceless!

The title, of course, refers to the fact that Louie is never broken by his experiences.  Although he comes perilously close - by the summer of 1945, he is in extremely bad shape physically, suffering from dysentery and fevers and possibly beriberi.  He is also tormented by a psychopathic guard the prisoners call the Bird, who makes it his mission to destroy Louie.  Louie is a bit of celebrity, track and field was a bigger sport in the 1930s than it is today so people actually paid attention to it outside of the Olympics.  His fame precedes him, and of course makes him a target. 

Still, he survives, returns a hero - and that's when he really falls apart.  Who could come back from that and just take up life where it left off?  Louie has a particularly bad turn with what we now know as PTSD, but all of his former captives are emotionally scarred.  Louie himself falls down a rabbit hole of anxiety, flashbacks, and drinking to hide, heal, forget, revenge.  Of course the alcohol does not work but what does - and I found this the most intense moment of the book - is a Billy Graham sermon in a tent in 1949.  Louie is saved, truly and finally, by religion.  This compelling scene is enough to make an atheist turn agnostic.  A born optimist, and apparently remarkably resilient physical specimen, Louie Zamperini is the most extraordinary protagonist I've come across in  while.  He is still alive, by the way, at 95, gawdluvim.

If I read correctly, Americans made up about a quarter of the prisoners held in Japan.  (Hillenbrand, 314-315)  The balance were British, Canadian, New Zealanders, Dutch, and Aussies - mostly British Commonwealth.  By the time Jennifer Worth takes up her work as a midwife in the poor but plucky Poplar district of East London, the setting of Call the Midwife, the war is ten or more years gone.  Yet it is almost always there in the background of this story.  Poplar is part of Docklands, a favorite target of German bombers during the Blitz.  Almost every family lost someone or something to the war, whether it was a whole person, or a house, or a mind.  So many uncleared ruins litter the landscape.  They are playgrounds for children, trash heaps, and the prostitutes' office.  The massive social and economic changes that roll through the post-war world will mean the end of this Cockney life, warts and all.  Worth is part of it during its last moments of - you can't say glory, but energy, life?  By the 1980s, the tenements will be torn down, the docklands no longer the transport and cargo hub of England, and the Cockney way of life almost obliterated.

But before that . . . Jennifer Worth (then Lee) is a newly-trained nurse-midwife who somehow misses the fact that the job she's applied for is nursing with (which also means living with) an order of nuns in Poplar, part of the order of St. Raymond Nonnatus.  Over the course of her lightly fictionalized (names are changed) tale, she comes to respect and love the nuns and their commitment to their calling, which is to provide midwifery services to the women of this terribly poor area.  In Call The Midwife, she details her experiences providing medical care, and learning about lives rather different from her own privileged upbringing.  For the Cockneys, life is all out there for the sharing and the nuns and nurses are right in it.  Jenny encounters a woman with 24 children and one on the way,  a mother with terrible rickets from her childhood in the slums, a woman who lost her children and her mind in the workhouse system, terrible maternal loss through eclampsia, an extraordinary range of reaction to infidelity as discovered at the birth of a child not exactly the same color as its pa, the desperation that turns a child to prostitution, and I'm probably forgetting more.  One that sticks and is likely representative of many is Lil, a slatternly mum with a passel of dirty snot-nosed kids already, all of whom (mum included) desperately need a bath.  Dad's not around much, hitting when he is.  Jenny meets Lil pretty early in her work at Nonnatus House, at a prenatal clinic, and has a very hard time dealing with someone who is happy living in such squalor, making no apparent effort to improve it. Not to mention who is so dirty it makes Jenny gag when doing physical exams (this is NOT a book for the squeamish). 

But on a follow-up visit to Lil's own house, in a condemned building in Stepney where the only running water and the lav are at the end of the balcony onto which the flats opened, Jenny comes to see it differently.  Lil made an effort, getting some water for tea for the nurse, offering a towel albeit a grimy one.  "Lil seemed different in her own surroundings," Worth writes.  "Maybe the clinic had intimidated her in some way, so that she had felt the need to assert herself by showing off.  She did not seem so loud and brash in her own home.  The irritating giggle, I realized, was no more than constant and irrepressible good humour.  She pushed the children around, but not unkindly."  (71)  Jenny administers the medicine (Lil has syphilis, and it will kill the baby if not treated) and departs.  She reflects later, "In her own surroundings, Lil was not a disgusting old bag, she was a heroine.  She kept the family together, in appalling conditions, and the children looked happy.  She was cheerful and uncomplaining.  How she had come to pick up syphilis was none of my business.  I was there to treat the condition, not to judge."  (72)   The next day, when Jenny returns to offer dose tow, she is greeted by Lil's own mum, announcing that "Lil's had a mis and gorn' to 'ospital.  Good riddance, I sez.  She's got enough with ten o' them, and him in an' out all the time."  (72)  Good riddance indeed, yet a short tug on a heartstring all the same. 

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this book was the inspiration for the wildly popular British series of the same name, which then had a big run in the States on PBS.  That's how I found it, and like just about everyone else, I was absolutely hooked by the sharply-written characters of nuns, nurses, and Cockneys; the warm stories of family life in hard times; the authenticity of place, and, yes, the whole babies-being-birthed theme.  CTM-the-TV-show is also not for the squeamish - it has some of the more graphic depictions of childbirth that I've ever seen (and are nothing next to the clinically detailed descriptions in the original book).  But gosh, there are these babies, and there are their mums and dads and siblings and grandparents and aunties and uncles (families in Poplar were very big, and all lived near each other), and even when born into such desperate surroundings, there's always a little more love to share. 

The one slightly off note in the book is Worth's portrayal of my fave character on the telly show, Chummy, also known as Camilla Fortescue-Cholmeley-Browne.  As written, Chummy is a complete caricature, and there is some discussion on the airwaves as to whether she was entirely fictional or not.  I suspect not, but Worth has her things like "I say, gels, did you know that Binkie Bingham-Binghouse is getting spliced at last?  Jolly good show, what?"  (273).  Oh come on, no one is named Binkie Bingham-Binghouse, not even in Chummy's top-drawer world.  Now on the telly, Chummy is played by the British comic actress Miranda Hart, who physically personifies Chummy shockingly well.  But she and the writers have also softened and deepened the character, making her still amusing in her rah-rah way, but sweet and devoted to all as well.  Good show, Hart, well done.  Worth herself was closely involved in the writing of the scripts, dying shortly before the show aired.

But back to that love bit.  For the theme of both of these books is indeed, love.  Jennifer Worth is upfront about it towards the end of her tale.  One of the nuns, Sister Monica Joan, an aristocratic old gel who's been doing this for decades, and is now in her 90s, is a difficult sort.  Brilliant, irascible, selfish, perhaps senile - she tries the patience of her fellow travelers even while her life's work serves as inspiration to them all.  Toward the end she has a bit of a mind-flip, and wanders around the neighborhood on a cold day clad only in her nightie.  Jenny and Chummy get her back to the lodging, pneumonia sets in, and a long recovery ensues.  Jenny had been finding Sister Monica Joan particularly trying before this, but the experience changes her own way of thinking.
  "I attended my morning visits as though in a dream.  Now and then in life, love catches you unawares, illuminating the dark corners of your mind, and filling them with a radiance.  Once in a while you are faced with a beauty and joy that takes your soul, all unprepared, by assault.  As I cycled around that morning, I knew that I loved not only Sister Monica Joan, but all that she represented:  her religion, her vocation, her monastic profession, the bells, the constant prayers within the convent, the quietness, and the selfless work in the service of God.  Was it perhaps - and I nearly fell off my bike with shock - could it be the love of God?"  (313)

Louie Zamperini would get this.  I myself tend to keep such ideas at arms-length, yet Louie and Jenny and Chummy and Lil and the rest offer much to think about, and I find myself pondering them and their stories and, yes, their message, still. 

Unbroken is one of those books that sticks with you after you have finished reading it.  You may find yourself thinking well dammit, if Louie can get through two and a half years of Japanese POW camp, I can get my butt to hot yoga this morning.  You may even find yourself contemplating a WWLZD? t-shirt.  Call the Midwife has had a similar effect.  Of course, for CtM, the t-shirt is, WHWCD, don't you know.  Prize to whomever figures that out. 

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