Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

“A man works from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.”

Martha Moore was born in 1735 in the town of Oxford, MA. She married Ephraim Ballard in 1754 and gave birth to nine children, lost three of them to diphtheria and eventually died in Maine, in 1812 at the age of 77.

Between 1785 and 1812, Martha Ballard kept a diary. Without it her life would’ve been just a succession of born and died dates in some town registry. We would know nothing about her. We would not know she was a midwife. That she delivered 816 babies during that time period with a higher living birth rate than some countries today. She kept an exhaustive record of her travels from house to house - helping not just the pregnant women but the sick and afflicted, her daily accounts of the weather, and her business dealings. We hear of her gardening, her cooking, the washing, and the spinning of wool to sell.

As she ages, we feel the affects of time as she complains of being tired and not well, but still she works, delivering babies, battling prejudice from male doctors, handling religious squabbles, dealing with armed settlers, and most especially loneliness when her husband is kept in debtor’s prison for over a year.

Such “trivia” would’ve been all but ignored but for Ulrich, who looked between the lines and found a heart-felt story within; a story that won a Pulitzer. By uncovering the subplots of Martha’s daily life, from someone’s hasty marriage, lingering labor, or sojourn to jail, she revealed a grander hidden picture of eighteenth-century social history.

I found this book to be fascinating, and I can’t believe I’ve never read it before. What women had to go through just amazes me. So many of their children died and yet these women persevered. And the medical practices, I just couldn’t believe what they used for remedies, and yet I found their return to a simpler time somehow comforting. Everything was much less complicated back then. Martha did really well for herself. She made her own money and took care of her and her own families needs, as well as countless of her neighbors. She did not sit idly back and let history write her off. She wrote her own. What would’ve been lost if she hadn’t? A treasure. For anybody that likes history, this is an excellent read. 4.5 stars


Amanda said...

Wow that sounds really interesting! How is Ulrich related to Martha? Or is Martha's diary public in some way?

L said...

As far as I know she's not related, but she was a professor of history in New Hampshire and probably found access to it because of that. It was handed down through the family and is now in a museum in Maine. At the time of this printing it had not been published, but even then it probably wouldn't make much sense. It was Ulrich's exhaustive research that revealed all the good stuff. She said starting a diary is like walking into a room full of strangers. I thought that a good analogy. Ulrich introduced us to them.

hamilcar barca said...

cool book review! Ulrich seems like a fascinating author. according to Amazon, another one of her books is titled Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.

L said...

I've heard good things about Well-Behaved Women, and she's also written one called Good Wives... on post-Mayflower women in New England.
A few people I know have heard her lectures. They say she's fantastic. It really was an interesting book.

Trixie said...

This really sounds like an interesting read. I need to look out for this one.
I'm reading another book about an African American midwife from the south during the mid-1900's. I think it will be interesting to compare their stories.

Rebecca Reid said...

I believe I read this years ago and also enjoyed it. But when I say "believe" I mean I can't recall any of the details at all! It sounds fascinating, and maybe I should reread it someday.

L said...

Martha mentions are least one other African American midwife in the diary. It would be something to compare practices and techniques from each time period. I'd bet they didn't change much.

I hear this book is/was standard required reading in high school and college for some people. I can see why because I learned a boat load of stuff about the time period. It's well worth a reread.