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A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

3.99 of 5 stars 3.99  ·  rating details  ·  3,713 ratings  ·  459 reviews
Drawing on the diaries of a midwife and healer in eighteenth-century Maine, this intimate history illuminates the medical practices, household economies, religious rivalries, and sexual mores of the New England frontier.
Paperback, 444 pages
Published December 22nd 2010 by Random House, Inc. (first published 1990)
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Lisa Butterworth
I read this book 15 years ago shortly after it won the Pulitzer, and it was amazing then, and I was equally impressed this time. In fact I was surprised as I read how much of it I could remember reading even that many years ago, so it must have made a deep impression.

I'm just in awe if LTU, the depth and breadth of information that she gleans from Martha Ballard's spare diary entries is mind boggling, for instance, she'll throw out a comparison of the number of people, male and female that MB m
“A man works from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.”

Martha Moore was born in 1735 in the town of Oxford, MA. She married Ephraim Ballard in 1754 and gave birth to nine children, lost three of them to diphtheria and eventually died in Maine, in 1812 at the age of 77.

Between 1785 and 1812, Martha Ballard kept a diary. Without it her life would’ve been just a succession of born and died dates in some town registry. We would know nothing about her. We would not know she was a midwife. T
Feb 26, 2009 Stephanie rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: History lovers, Women
Recommended to Stephanie by: Idahospud's Book Club
I kept journals fairly religiously while I was in high school. They are so full of rampant sentimentality (i.e. boy craziness) that reading them now makes me want to fetch the lighter fluid and matches straightaway.

Martha Ballard avoided this problem neatly by keeping her entries brief, factual and largely devoid of emotion or interpretation. She kept careful track of her work as a midwife, her gardening and household chores, and the comings and goings of friends, family, and neighbors; basical
Oct 06, 2013 Rina rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: anyone
Though seemingly aimed at an audience who eat up popular history like its cake, Thatcher's book is well researched and obviously the child of a social historian. It may actually be in its favour to be so accessible by those that don't live in the same world as Thatcher in terms of gaining understanding of it and the implications Thatcher's work holds for both gender and medical history. While some parts are questionable in terms of putting thoughts on the person of Mrs. Martha Ballard, A Midwife ...more
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This book is a labor of love. Laurel Ulrich Thatcher (who is LDS, incidentally) sifted through thousands of journal entries & period documents to reconstruct the life of Martha Ballard--a woman history forgot. The result is stunning. You get to know, intimately, what life was like for an average American woman in the late 18th/early 19th C. This is not idealized portrayal, just wonderfully realistic.

And of course, the reason I first picked this book up is that I'm obsessed with midwifery and
This started out really slowly. The introduction just about killed me with the dry and convoluted information. I had trouble following it and caring. Then I started on the rest of it. I really liked the format; being able to read some of the diary but then being told the back story from lots of other sources. The diary itself was hard to read but got easier as things went on.

I thought Martha's life was very interesting. All the comings and goings. It all made me want to live in an area that has
Meredith Watts
Nov 28, 2007 Meredith Watts rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in micro-history
This book was amazing. It is set in the largely uncharted territory of Maine after the Revolutionary War. Few regular folks were literate at that time, which is why Martha Ballard, a largely self-educated midwife, gave us such a gift in keeping a diary. It's not a diary in the ordinary sense, but rather her accounts of her business as a midwife, sometimes punctuated with other short references to events in her life. Her husband was quite a guy -- a surveyor, who lived into very old age. Ulrich i ...more
Sandra D
I first happened upon Martha Ballard's diary online a few years ago and found it interesting but difficult to decipher, so I was happy to find this book.

In it, Ms. Ulrich has skillfully woven diary entries with local history records in order to create a fuller picture of life in a small New England town in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She used entries in the diary as a jumping-off point to elaborate not only on the larger themes of birth, death, religion and political upheaval, but al
Laurel Ulrich takes the basic diary entries of early midwife Martha Ballard (diary from 1785-1812)in Maine, and puts the entries in the context of the times when she lived. The diary records the day-to-day life of a wife, mother, midwife, and householder in post-Revolution America with entries about gardening, soap making, visitors, weather, spinning, weaving, etc and Ulrich expands the entries with information about how these daily activities affected the local economy, and how Martha Ballard's ...more
Until recent times, not many people would have recognized the name Martha Ballard as a name of historical significance. Though relatively unknown by the masses, most scholars agree that her written diary profoundly contributed to current knowledge of early New England women’s lives, especially those in the field of midwifery. It was the great effort of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in her Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, which unc ...more
David Nichols
This pathbreaking, Pulitzer-prize-winning book is a study of the life, labor, and social connections of a rural midwife, Martha Ballard, based on her manuscript diary in the Maine State Library. A MIDWIFE'S TALE changed the way historians researched and wrote women's history. In the 1970s and '80s, students of women's history primary focused on the records of literate, middle- and upper-class women, and defined their lives as a struggle against the strictures of a patriarchal society. Ulrich, by ...more
This was recommended by a former coworker who wasn't 'former' when the recommendation was made. It took me a while to get to it but it was worth it once I got there!

Ulrich uses the diary of Martha Ballard to provide a look into late 18th, early 19th century New England life that is absent from most other sources. Martha's world view wasn't one of grand nation building but instead focused on her family, community and her work as a midwife. The diary begins with Martha around 50 and continues unti
Anna Pearce
Feb 22, 2010 Anna Pearce rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: historians
I think vibrant history needs to follow the same rule as vibrant fiction: show, don't tell. And Laurel Thatcher Ulrich does exactly that with her award winning social history "A Midwife's Tale". Instead of telling us in droning detail about a variety of different roles women had in early US history, she shows us the life of midwife Martha Ballard, using her diary and other primary sources from Hallowell (now Augusta) to do so.

Throughout, Ulrich focuses on three themes: Social Medicine (that is,
Okay, this is how history should be done!

I am 20 years late to this party: Ulrich got a Pulitzer for this book in 1991.

But it's still a rockin' party!

This is pretty much everything I love, in one really excellent book. To wit: history, feminism, the role of domestic labor, birth, epidemiology, diaries, historical medicine, herbal remedies, science, gardening. I mean, it's like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich sat down and asked, "Exactly what kind of book would please Inder the most?" And came up with th
I learned so much from this book, but the language is at a high enough level that I feel I missed a lot too. The structure of American society in New England in the late 18th century was significantly different than what I'd pictured. Families were building out in nearly unoccupied land, more like what I thought of mid-western pioneers in later history. I did know that the work just to stay fed and clothed was almost unending, but it was interesting to see some of the structure around all the la ...more
This book was not what I expected. I thought I was getting a biography based on Martha's diary from the late 1700s to early 1800s. It actually reads more like a text book as the author disects the diary and uses other historic documents to describe life as a midwife in the time period. It was very interesting but not necessarily entertaining.

Very few of my preconceived notions of what it was like to live in the time period as a woman were true. Martha was a very independent person, but that may
I began reading this book because Martha Ballard, the midwife, was a knitter who recorded her progress in winding wool and knitting socks and mittens while she attended births (lots and lots of them). Ulrich won a Pulitzer for this book, an astonishing interpretation of the diary of a midwife in Maine during the late 1700s/early 1800s. It is amazing that Martha Ballard kept this diary and equally amazing that her family preserved and donated her diary to the Maine State Library. Ulrich. Interest ...more
This was as good, in fact BETTER than I remember it from 20+ years ago when I first read it. I was fascinated on MANY levels. Though Martha's daily life was the antithesis of mine, I understand that her life as "wife", "mother", "care-giver" and "friend" are callings that remain constant with feeling and emotions in complete harmony with women today. I will continue to highly recommend this title and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich for the next 20+ years!
This book was a fascinating look into 18th century American culture. Martha Ballard was just past her childbearing years and had become a midwife. She kept a diary with impressive regularity and detail, describing births, familial and societal reactions to these births, how much she was paid to assist in them, and how it was "determined" who the father could be right in the middle of each delivery. I have no desire to become a midwife, but this book converted me to the value of keeping a regular ...more
Just A. Bean
The book is well researched, well thought out, and engagingly written. The author stuck to her copious research and didn't speculate very much, which I appreciate in non fiction, especially as she managed to tell such an interesting story with what she had.

I enjoyed how the author started each chapter with large diary excerpts and then filled in detail with quotes from other years, other diaries, town documents, and hypothesis. It made what seems like an impenetrable flood of names, dates and ch
This book has stuck with me for almost a decade. It is based on the journal of a midwife in the early 1800's. You see her entry one day about delivering a baby and then the next day laying out the mother and baby for their funeral.

What I remember most is a comment that, if you looked at the historical documents, you wouldn't even know this woman's name. Yet, because she kept a journal, you see an intimate view of her life and the important role she held in the community. Not to mention a fascin
Leah Colleen Worley
Maine midwife Martha Ballard (1735-1812) kept a diary. She wrote on loose paper with a quill pen and homemade ink … daily … for 27 years! I have a laptop, fast typing skills, modern conveniences … and I’m averaging about one blog post per month this year. Her entries were typically much more brief than mine, though, and she didn’t have photos to mess with. So there.

Author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich spent 8 years studying Martha’s diary, along with numerous other period writings and has put together
Using the diary of Martha Ballard, a text that other historians had erroneously dismissed as trivial, Ulrich crafts a rich account of 18th century life through the experiences of a woman who performed the multiple functions of midwife, nurse, physician, mother, wife, farmer/gardener, record keeper, and faithful child of God. Ulrich fleshes out the details of Martha’s life and those around her by adding to Martha’s very spare, but deceivingly detailed account with information garnered from local ...more
I had to read this for my discussion group, otherwise it's not the type of book I would choose on my own. It is slow reading. I know this sounds awful, but I wish the author would have written a fictionalized story based on the events described in the diary. Instead, each chapter begins with a diary exerpt, than a tedious explanation of the passages and their historical background. It can get boring. Also, I'm not interested in the midwife theme.
Martha Smith
It takes a historian of extraordinary persistence, skill, and empathy to recognize Martha Ballard's diary as something of a buried treasure and to painstakingly unearth its gems...Ulrich has recognized Ballard's great spirit, and has given to us the gift of a life worth knowing. Between 1785 and 1812 a midwife and healer named Martha Ballard kept a diary tht recorded her arduous work as well as her domestic life in Hallowell, Maine.
Lauren Csaki
Wow, was this an impressive book. Clearly the result of years of study and thought, Ulrich's Pulitzer Prize winner takes us through the dense, terse, and often puzzling diary of Martha Ballard, an 18th century midwife living on the Kennebec River, at the gateway to Maine's backcountry. It's remarkable that the diary was written, it's even more remarkable that it's survived, but perhaps most amazing of all is the feat that Ulrich has accomplished in her studies: making sense of the diary and extr ...more
I read this book after Laurel Ulrich Thatcher won the Pulitzer Prize. I found Martha Ballard a fascinating person who lived a life devoted to serving her family, and her women neighbors. There are some tough to read parts, especially her take on a family tragedy in a town nearby. Ulrich does a splendid job of making Martha come alive from the words in her diary.
I first read this book a long time ago in college. We also watched a movie based on this book. I think I can say this book strongly influenced me in ways I didn't even know. I went on to volunteer at a historical society to read diaries and then to graduate school to study library science and history. I am obsessed with manuscripts and I hope one day I can find a Martha Ballard!

I was fascinated by how Dr. Ulrich could put together a history of rural Maine just from the diary. The true story lie
I borrowed this book from the library and ran out of time on it because other patrons had placed hold requests on it. Since it was more like a diary, there wasn't a driving force leading me anxiously to the final pages. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's book is a testament to how much can be gained by taking the time to look at women's history, often less well-preserved and overlooked. Basing her analysis on the spare writings of the diary of Martha Ballard, a midwife in Maine around the time of the Amer ...more
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Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University. She is the author of Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Early New England, 1650-1750 (1982) and A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (1990) which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1991 and became the basis of a PBS documentary. In The Age of Homespun ...more
More about Laurel Thatcher Ulrich...
Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History Rachel's Death: Leonard J Arrington Mormon History Lecture Series #9

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