In A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich transports readers across time to a moment when Maine was still the frontier and midwives were still major providers of medical care. Ulrich carefully weaves information from Martha Ballard’s diary together with other diaries from the same time, legal records, local histories and even comparative fiction to tell the story of Martha’s life in a fast-paced and readable format. The book sets events into a rough chronological order, but within chapters Ulrich moves freely within the diary to recreate the atmosphere of Martha’s work and family. The result is a quaint and curious book about a midwife who delivered over eight hundred babies in the course of her career.
Ulrich frequently pulls material from other diaries and legal records that either cross-reference or fact-check the information from Martha’s diary; she is constantly bringing up external sources to flesh out Martha’s narrative. These extra sources vary from chapter to chapter. Ulrich uses the novel The Country of Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett in the first chapter as a focal point for midwives in New England society, especially the tense relationships between herbalist midwives and academic doctors. The novel’s interpretation of New England midwifery, through the character Mrs. Todd, is firmly entrenched in a mystic tradition, but Ulrich tears the mysticism out of midwifery with Martha and her humanity. This comparison, as well as those later in the book to eighteenth century seduction novels, adds to Martha’s story by showing the fantasized version of the eighteenth century and breaking it down. Martha is a real woman, and her midwife practice, as well as other aspects of eighteenth century medicine, are described in detail. Some of these scenes are graphic, including childbirth details and a mass murder.
Apart from some disturbing moments, A Midwife’s Tale is a readable book. Ulrich uses the English language not only as a means to convey plot and dialogue, but also as a tool to show how Martha grows and develops over time. Martha’s original spelling and grammar is a fun puzzle to decipher, and though Ulrich provides the reader with enough tools to understand Martha’s English, she rarely translates the language into modern English. The haphazard linguistics of Martha’s diary entries become entertaining as Ulrich’s writing constantly reaches high quality standards. Because Ulrich pulls not only from Martha’s diary, but from several other diaries and legal papers, there is a wide variety of diction in this book. The variety adds to the entertainment value, though a less-secure reader might feel threatened by the different and notably strange spellings found in the diaries.
Martha Ballard lived an exciting and exhausting life as a midwife, and her character grows through different trials in her life. Not only does Martha form an integral part of the Hallowell community due to her calling as a midwife, but she is a pillar in the female community both economically and socially. She struggles for attention from her husband and children, fights with her son and trains her daughters, niece and a series of hired helpers how to be good housekeepers. She becomes the main witness in a publicized rape trial and is one of the first responders on the scene of a mass murder. Martha delivers her last baby shortly before her death at the age of seventy-seven, leaving behind a legacy of medicine and maternal love.
Perhaps the most remarkable feat that Ulrich accomplished in A Midwife’s Tale is her ability to create a working narrative out of the chronological happenings in the life of one woman. Ulrich digs to the heart of each epoch in Martha’s life and distills them into plot progression, character development and story. As Martha ages, she becomes freer in her journaling, allowing herself emotional exclamations of weariness or joy; Ulrich uses the shifts in Martha’s tone over time to her advantage. By focusing on one aspect of Martha’s life for each chapter, as they occur in chronological order, Ulrich maintains Martha’s timeline and reveals her character growth in progressive stages.
There are only two issues with A Midwife’s Tale. The first problem is the amount of text actually available from Martha’s diary. Each chapter begins with two to three weeks’ worth of diary entries, but each entry ranges from roughly two to twelve sentences, so the sum total of diary entries at the beginning of each chapter hold the length of about three pages. Though there are a considerable number of other entries sprinkled heavily throughout the bulk of each paragraph, a decided majority of the text is Ulrich’s retelling of Martha’s life as opposed to Martha’s telling of her life. Ulrich’s text is solid and thorough, but sometimes the book wanted for lack of Martha’s original work. An extra page of original material per chapter would have helped to balance the dichotomy of the original diary and Ulrich’s narrative.
The second difficulty with this book is its graphic content. As a midwife, Martha is constantly exposed to the workings of life and death. During her career, Martha observes four autopsies, two of which are described, one in extensive detail. Ulrich explains some aspects of Martha’s medical career, including treating patients by bleeding and puking, in vivid detail, providing supplementary medical records from the time period that promote the same practices. Martha regularly treats patients with intestinal worms, and in some places gives account to how many worms a patient vomits up. On top of the medical content, Martha is one of the first responders at the scene of the Purrinton (also spelled Purington or Purrington) murders near her home. Though Martha’s own description of the scene is characteristically terse, Ulrich includes and analyzes the newspaper stories of the same event. The other sources provide graphic detail about the manner of killing and the state of bodies.
A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a fascinating book that will enchant several different audiences from the casual reader to the professional historian. Martha herself is enchanting with her meticulous record of daily life. There are some graphic explanations of Martha’s midwifery practice, and the murder scene receives heavy treatment that may cause discomfort for some readers, but even a squeamish reader will be entranced by Martha’s world.