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A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812
By Claywoman   

Last edited: Wednesday, January 08, 2003
Posted: Sunday, October 06, 2002

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A Historical Critique...

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., New York 1990)

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote a definitive book based on the life and times of one obscure woman who lived in the late 1700’s. Looking at the bibliography, you see where her research led, besides the diaries written by Ballard, there were only two other books. Ulrich, however, used other resources such as county records, city records, state records, as well as church documents. Her footnotes give the reader a more extensive flavor of this period and sometimes the thoughts of other writers. At the conclusion of the book, Ulrich also gives the reader a glossary of medicinal plants and formulas for some of the medicines used at the time. During this period, women became almost chattel; Martha Ballard lives and shows us with her writings what colonial life was like.

Her thesis was simple, showing life as it was in colonial times, the joys, the hardships, the births and deaths, the marriages and divorces, sexual escapades and even murder. However, by taking this diary and analyzing its content, she made Martha Ballard live for all who read this book. The entries are simple, but by taking those events and comparing them with written history of the time, you saw this elderly woman braving the bone-chilling weather to attend a birth, or sitting with someone easing out of life. You can easily picture why this book won the prizes it did, for it is not only good literature, it is the best part of history.

This is a diary of a woman written during a period of time when few women could read, let alone write. Martha Ballard was an exception during her lifetime. Whether actually schooled by tutors hired for her brother she was educated and for that we the readers are grateful. In the final chapter of the book, Ulrich tells us the history of the diary, how it passed from one woman to another, some disregarded it as useless, while other women used its words to inspire themselves to distinguish themselves in their own lifetimes. The words once given to the Maine State Library languished until another writer attempted to write about it.

This author although using some of the material, omitted what he considered common and mundane. Being male, he probably did not realize how important the mundane was to the telling of the complete story. However, through his efforts, Ulrich learned about Martha Ballard and began her own eight years of research, which culminates in this tome. This book gives so much to the reader, a sense of time and the hardships encountered in building a new country out of wilderness. It explains the high birthrate and consequently, the high mortality of children until the advent of modern medicine. This book makes the reader wonder what historians will perceive our lives in one hundred years in the future. Ulrich gives us primary sources and few secondary and uses them well. We know about the lives of prominent men and their wives during this time, but how many books bothered with the daily routine of the common women? Through her eyes, we witness this struggle for life of the help she was to her husband and the income she generated.

Ulrich takes us on that journey and explains some of the events and how they affected life in the community as well. She holds true to her thesis to the last page and gives us her interpretation of this struggle. She gives us authentic renderings of Martha’s own misspellings rather then giving the passages of the diary in our own vernacular. Then she takes those passages and explains in her words the significance of the passages just read. Martha herself gave us glimpses of herself when in an argument with a daughter-in-law; she snubbed the woman and yet, took food the woman fixed for Martha and her husband. At the end of her life, Martha was still delivering babies and preparing the dead for burial. At the age of ninety, Martha rode a horse to and from calls some miles from her home. This book is a tribute to a strong woman, a woman who saw what needed to be done and did it.

Without this diary, the world would never know Martha Ballard, and for many years, it did not. However, Ulrich saw the wisdom and the history few knew and wrote this wonderful book. Through her pen and the wisdom of those women who kept the diary even though many of them could not read its words, one of Martha’s granddaughters probably would never study medicine. We also learn of other kin to Martha, Clara Barton and without someone like Martha, would we have a Clara Barton.

In conclusion, this book is a wealth of information, most of which one cannot glean out of one reading. Whole passages can and should merit further research and its pages should encourage a new group of colonial researchers to delve further into this period and ferret out other diaries to give us all a better glimpse of colonial life. Ulrich is the mentor of the future to those who enjoy with period in history.

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