22 August 2006

A Midwife's Tale

Yes, I know I should have read this book by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich a long time ago, but I finally got to it now. I mistakenly returned it to the library on Saturday so I can't quote anything from the book, but I'll do the best I can.

This was far and away one of the best scholarly history books I have ever read. Ulrich takes the diary of Martha Ballard, kept from around 1785-1812. Using the diary and a variety of other primary sources from the same time and place, Ulrich reconstructs what life was like for Martha Ballard.

The book is not a biography; while I learned a lot about Martha Ballard, she was not the sole focus of the book. But Ulrich doesn't take Ballard's experiences and generalize them to the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century life, nor to midwifery or women or to anything. It is simply a picture of the time and place through Martha Ballard's eyes.

This is a fascinating book and I'd love to read more like it, but there are few that focus on the individual in such an enriching way. The attention to detail in the diary shows how familiar Ulrich was with Martha Ballard. If the fully transcribed diary wasn't so expensive, I'd get it.

I also read Ulrich's All God's Critters Got a Place in the Choir and enjoyed that too. There was one quote in particular that I liked at the very end of "Poor Mother," but since I already returned that one too, you'll just have to read it yourself


  1. Both of these titles are two of my favorites, too. I tried to read LTU's _Good Wives_ but couldn't get into it. I'm so glad you finally were able to read them.

  2. I'm surprised you say Ullrich doesn't generalize from Martha Ballard to 18th century American women. I thought the details of the parallel men's and women's economy were eye-opening. The fact that young unmarried women were so usually working on other family's houses was an interesting detail too.

  3. She doesn't generalize from Martha Ballard's diary itself. Any statement that applies to more than just Martha is backed up with other historical primary sources. That's why it's more than a biography because it's so much more than just details of Martha Ballard's life. But her diary is only one source when Ulrich talks about the economy or death rates or anything else about 18th and 19th century life.

    I was particularly interested in her success as a midwife measured by the low numbers of deaths of mothers and children. One of my husband's ancestors was a midwife and she claimed a similarly low number of deaths. I was always skeptical of that because we've gotten the idea that childbirth was incredibly dangerous until recently. While it is much safer now, many women didn't die and that is reflected in the diary. And I'll believe my great-great-great grandmother-in-law. :)