Friday, December 5, 2008
Silvertown is more than a memoir. It's a fascinating tale, and a tribute to human spirit and endurance.
This book came from author Melanie McGrath's research on her grandparents, Jenny and Len Page, who lived in London's East End at the turn of the century. Jenny is the main focus of the story, which begins with her birth in 1903 London. The story follows her through an impoverished childhood, her first job at 14 in the sewing sweatshops, WWI, the death of her sister to typhoid, and the loss of all her teeth on her 17th birthday. What follows a rough childhood, is an even rougher marriage to Len Page. Jenny raises her family, manages to live through WWII and the London Blitz, and her husband's infidelity.
The most poignant account was Jenny's 17th birthday. Her mother took her to what I believe was the equivalent of the local butcher, who proceeded to extract all of Jenny's teeth without any pain medication. Afterwards, Jenny was fitted with a set of porcelain dentures. What McGrath manages to eloquently convey is that it wasn't done to be cruel, or without her mother's sympathy. This type of tooth extraction was common practice back then; done to avoid the medical bills involved with dentistry. It also had the added benefit of making the young lady easier to marry off since the prospective husband wouldn't need to worry about her dental bills.
I'm sure this sounds incredibly depressing, but it was not. The manner in which McGrath tells this story is uplifting. It made me feel good about the strength and tenacity of human beings. Not only that, but McGrath paints a vivid picture with her words. I felt I could really see the old East End, and the characters in my mind.
The only complaint I have is that we didn't get to see how Jenny's children fared. Obviously they survived and did well, since Melanie McGrath is here to tell this tale. According to Amazon.co.uk, there is a sequel being released in 2009, so hopefully that book will fill in the blanks.
Silvertown, An East End Family Memoir was written by Melanie McGrath and published in 2002 by Fourth Estate (Harper Collins). It's a shame this book is only a few years old and it's already out of print. However Amazon has it available from several used book dealers at good prices. Highly recommended.