Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Yes, I’m still in a reading slump. Surprisingly, when I’m in that mood where nothing I read looks entertaining, I resort to the educational stuff. You’d be surprised at how much I analyze ordinary entertainment stories…then again, if you’ve read my reviews before, you’d already know how annoying I can be. As such, even as this attempt failed to get me out of the slump, I still found quite a lot information enjoyable. Lots of social commentary was what I had. Heh.

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

First off, a little tipbit about me that does related to this book in a roundabout way. I majored in Women’s Studies in undergrad. I still cannot decide if it was a good mistake or just a plain mistake, but that was my major. Complicated issue condense – as much as this major helped me come into my own as a Asian American (which almost became my second major, but was sadly missed along with my almost two minors Afro-Entho and Anthropology – all forgoed in favor of graduating in 4 years – stupidest decision ever…ever.) woman, I came out of the major more critical of it then one should be. It’s only out of love that I criticize it so.

As such, I’ve read my share of feminist theories and historical recounts to be able to decipher (and sometimes enjoy) the drier aspect of academia (person opinion of course). It also meant I’ve learned to take everything in with more than just a grain of salt. Lol. The author, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was not new to me. Ergo, I was expecting the essay/analysis form of writing to accompany the details of Martha Ballard’s life and times. Again, why I brought this up was that I would not recommend this book for those attempting to read for some sensationalized biography. Don’t get me wrong, the contents included quite a few scandalized true historical events, but the writing was that of an academic nature. After reading this book, my undead and refusing to go away interest in history reared its ugly head and gave me much a desire to raid the Maine State Library to read the entire diary. Alas, I resisted and just did a lot of googling and wikipediaing random historical people to appease my geekiness.

This book was Ulrich’s way of telling the story of Martha Moore Ballard using her own words of the place, time and people she inhabited.

Martha, as I’ve come to call her in my head as if I actually knew her, was around 50 years old when she started her diary. This was the official start of her career as a midwife. The “diary” was really more of form of record keeping for services rendered. It was not until later in her journal did Martha started expanding on certain aspects. Then again, a lot of information lay in what was not written, in comparison to the records of those days as well as what we knew of the historical time. What was so amazing about this book was not only did it stay relatively well preserved in near completeness, but it was able to present the women’s world in the voice of an older woman. Every day. For about 27 years. Holy cheesesticks. Talk about diligence. Of course, the book contained only selections of Martha’s diary and we readers must rely on the researcher and storyteller, Ulrich, for accuracy, interpretation as well as the background of that world.

It was a small world really. During a specific time period at only one location, yet it was filled with the illustrations of that time and world so similar to our own. It’s not as if there were no other diarists during that period and in truth, that’s what made it more authentic. Ulrich was about to find documentations of the events both in the local clerical records and often contrasted with other diarist’s point of view. Of course, those were written by men of a certain class, background and distinction. Times like these, it really drove home the importance of having different perspectives on any given situations. Granted, the book probably was not as exciting as I’m making it sound, but it did give a lot of food for thought. At its bare minimum, the book was able to portray an older woman’s survival during a time period where they had no voice. Instead, I noticed how women in those times had more recourse than people gave history credit for.

For one, Martha had a career. As a midwife, not only did she have an important social role, she was also privy to the worlds of different class as well as fields (i.e. the doctors and midwives often worked together even as we saw the eventual superior/demeaning stance the medical field began to take). For another, the time period’s regulation and expectations of sexual norms was much more different than we were told as children. Example, pregnancy before marriage was not frowned upon. It was not marrying even after any child was born that was upsetting and was usually directed against the baby’s father. As such, women were able to sue the man (minus a small fine for fornication). It was amazing how much time changed that notion.

For me personally, it was important to see how much history was lost when someone else controlled the media. It also showed how biases often filtered into history and we sometimes create these puritanical worlds of years long past that really did not exist. Whether it be of gender, age, or generation. Martha Ballard was a great inspiration for not only myself, but for her own family. Her sister’s granddaughter was Clara Barton, the woman that created the Red Cross, also heard about Martha in family stories. Martha’s great-great-granddaughter was Mary Hobart, one of America’s first female physicians (Mary inherited the diary).

As I resist adding more social commentary, I could very clearly say that this book was a generally good read if you’re into history. I enjoyed the refresher as well as needed the extra inspiration. :)


  1. So glad you found something good to read!

    Can you afford to go back to school and maybe get a Master's degree in Afro-Entho and or Anthropology?

    Everything you do--or don't do--is a learning experience and the consequences of which make you who you are [aka "mistakes"]... and it's never too late to do something new or "fix" those "mistakes."

    .. it was important to see how much history was lost when someone else controlled the media.

    SO TRUE!

    Really great review, Alice.

  2. Thanks, Chrissy.

    I actually got into the Anthro Master's program back in the day, but RL etc. Long story. Problem now is I don't know if that's the path for me anymore so I haven't pursued.

    As of now, I'm just trying to get back into the swing of things and figuring it all out. :)

    Thanks so much for encouraging me. You're always such a good friend to me. :)

    As for the book, it had great moments. Other times, I almost fell asleep reading. LOL. So bad of me.