Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary 1785-1812. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Pp. 1-444.
A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a significant body of literature that captures women’s experiences and lifestyles semi-collectively during the 18th century and early 19th century. Mainly written from Martha Ballard’s perspective and her experiences as a midwife and an 18th-century woman in New England, the theme of women’s rights and purpose are heavily present. Throughout the book, Ulrich provides historical and social commentary that helps validate the experience of the book’s antagonist Martha Ballard and the other characters that both shape and provide meaning and purpose to Martha’s life.
Ulrich has dedicated her historian career to women and colonial women of the 17th through 19th centuries, from Good Wives (1982) to her most recent book, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870 (2017). It is easy to see that her literary contribution to A Midwife’s Tale is fitting. In essence, she is more than qualified and capable of reimagining and capturing a part of American History that is often overlooked based on gender and relevance to American culture aside from paternalistic dominance.
What makes Martha Ballard’s experience and cast more tangible is that A Midwife’s Tale is presented in a fashion that includes the original and modernized conversations of Martha’s diary. The book also contains graphs and charts that provide a vivid picture of the topography during this period and the customs and traditions prevalent in her field, and the area’s social structure.
Some of the book’s major points that support both the author and the antagonist are how Martha views her life and the value of her life in context to her role and the ideas that shape the lifestyle of a proper woman during the colonial period in America. We see this often in her journal entries, where she describes the births and deaths and how the occurrences impact her, and how she treats each case. We also witness her feelings about her family dynamic and structure.
She battles with the changes and the feeling of helplessness from the advancement and shifts in their lives. Martha provides imagery of being both prideful in her contribution to her local society and her social web, along with being vulnerable to the expectations of being a woman and the responsibility of following the role of caregiver and nurturer.
Overall, despite the period that the book is written in, the parallels of experiences and the social development of both the female and male characters presented in A Midwife’s Tale hold lessons for today’s readers. From the tragedies of the epidemics and pandemics of their time to the social structure that threatened conducive family environments, 21st-century readers can glean many practical viewpoints from enacting change and effective societal development today.