Book Review - a Midwife`S Tale

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  • Topic: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Martha Ballard
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  • Published : March 6, 2013
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Frank Buonomo
Readings in American History: Colonial to 1815
Fall 2010

Book Review of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich`s A Midwife`s Tale

A Midwife`s Tale is a meticulously researched, highly readable analysis of an eighteenth-century life in context. To understand eighteen-century America through one woman`s eyes, historian and author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich spent eight years working through Martha Ballard`s massive dairy. Twenty seven years worth of seemingly mundane jottings. The author`s goal was to connect Martha`s dairy and her work as a midwife to her world. By cataloging diary entries and cross-referencing other documents that mentioned the people Ballard encountered and events she experienced on her constant travels as midwife and healer, Ulrich painstakingly recreated Ballard`s world. In 1785, America was a rough and chaotic young nation, and Maine its remote northern frontier. That year, at the age of fifty, Martha Ballard began the dairy that she would keep for the next twenty-seven years, until her death. At the time when fewer than half the women in America were literate, Ballard faithfully recorded the weather, her daily household tasks, her midwifery duties (she delivered close to a thousand babies), her medical practice, and countless incidents that reveal the turmoil of the new nation. This was a time marked by dizzying social change, intense religious conflict, economic boom and bust, life threatening diseases, domestic violence, changing sexual mores, and debtor`s prison. The end of monarchial rule, evolving governmental structure, religious fragmentation, changes to the family system, economic flux, and massive population shifts resulted in a time of uncertainty and insecurity. Each of these social issues touched Martha and Ephraim Ballard and are reflected in one way or another in Martha`s daily jottings.

When Martha Ballard began writing the diary, the Revolutionary War had been over for just a year. The states, still a confederation and almost totally agrarian, had a total population of under four million. The former colonies were struggling through a major economic depression and just beginning to understand how to operate outside the confines of British rule. By the time of Ballard`s last entry, in 1812, the United States, now organized under a central, constitutional government, had a population of ten million people. The nation had changed dramatically in just under thirty years. The transition was not an easy one, for either military, political, and business leaders who had led the colonies to independence or for ordinary citizens like Martha and Ephraim Ballard. From a methological point of view, the historian accomplished several monumental tasks that made this project work so well and make the work accessible to the reader. The author created a sense of the geography of place by mapping out Martha`s movements around the town of Hallowell. This must have been an extremely tedious task. But it paid huge dividends. To accomplish this, the author meticulously searched the Kennebec County land deeds from 1760 to 1800. The result was a variety of useful maps illustrating the layout of Martha Ballard community and her movements from place to place healing and delivering babies. Another great accomplishment of the historian was her ability to cross-reference the many names Martha Ballard mentioned in her diary with a variety of public records which included census records, birth records, marriage records, tax lists, probate records, and court records (community study methodology). These sources that social historians have generally used obscure the activities of women. Martha`s diary records the activities of women and men, allowing us to see her community as a whole: men interacting with each other and with women; women interacting with each other in barter and trade, in healing activities, and in constant visiting among households. Even more powerful was Ulrich`s ability to...
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