"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Midwife's Tale

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Vintage, 1990. 444 pages.

"Between 1785 and 1812 a midwife and healer named Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her arduous work (in 27 years she attended 816 births) as well as her domestic life in Hallowell, Maine.  On the basis of that diary, Laural Thatcher Ulrich give us an intimate and densely imagined portrait, not only of the industrious and reticent Martha Ballard but of her society -- a portrait that sheds light on its medical practices, religious squabbles and sexual mores. At once lively and impeccably scholarly, A Midwife's Tale is a triumph of history on a human scale." (description from book cover)

 Overall Review: **** (out of five)

  • Fascinating Story. Few works about early America focus on women, particularly non-famous women.  Ulrich's work focuses on one woman, a midwife, and what her diary says not only about her daily life, but also about her family and the culture of her town.  And Martha Ballard's story is interesting, because it shows how wide the involvement of a woman could be in the community.
  • Narrative Style. Ulrich begins each chapter with the relevant entries from Ballard's diary, followed by Ulrich's interpretation and  analysis.  Not only does this introduce the reader to her most important primary source, but it also gives transparency to her discussions of her process of research.
  • Style.  Ulrich's storytelling style could also detract from ease in following the narrative. Going back and forth between excerpts from the diary and Ulrich's writing could make it more difficult to follow the story.

I read this book in college for a class on the history of American women.  We read some excellent stuff in that class, but Ulrich's book stood out.  I found her approach to be so different from other works of history I'd read, and I liked it. Having the combination of the primary source and Ulrich's text worked well in showing how rich such a source is.

The best part, of course, is what Ulrich has to say about life in Hallowell, Maine, and Martha Ballard's part in that life as a wife, mother, and midwife.  Few people truly know much about the life of women in post-Revolutionary America.  Martha is different from many women in that she works.  But her diary is not confined to discussing births.  She also talks about her relationships with her children, including her sons and daughters-in-law as they move away.  There are mentions of shopping trips, and the provisions required for a farming family.  Martha, however, takes her job seriously and makes trips in all kinds of weather to attend the people in the town. 

But Ulrich's work does not simply show a portrait of a competent, successful woman.  She shows a town small enough that most people know each other and where news spreads quickly. A town attached to the sea for part of the year and separated by inclement weather the other part.  She also shows a woman growing older in a job that requires activity, a woman watching her children grow up and start lives of their own.  Ulrich never allows the reader to forget that Martha Ballard is more than a historical source.  She was a living, breathing woman.  And it is affection for the woman, more than simple interest in history, that draws both Ulrich and the reader through the story.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed, Ulrich has a very accessible narrative style. I read Ulrich's "Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750" for an American Colonial History class. I found it to contain fascinating portraits of some exceptional yet forgotten women of the era. Her research is rather fantastic.