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

3.99  ·  Rating Details ·  4,374 Ratings  ·  516 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 1991 by Vintage Books (first published 1990)
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Community Reviews

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Lisa Butterworth
Oct 08, 2008 Lisa Butterworth rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 07, 2009 Stephanie rated it really liked it
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
Feb 07, 2009 Leslie rated it really liked it
“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
Sep 14, 2010 Jacob rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Oct 06, 2013 Rina rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 08, 2013 Stacy rated it liked it
Shelves: history
This was a unique read. So each chapter starts with a section of Martha Ballard's diary. She was a real person who lived in Maine and worked as a midwife there. The diary covers her day-to-day notes between 1785-1812.

Women's journals from this time period are not at all common to have been preserved to modern day, but her family descendants preserved her writings all these years, and thank goodness they did. Her journal tells us much about life at that time and place, as well as medicine at the
Meredith Watts
Nov 28, 2007 Meredith Watts rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 25, 2008 Rachel rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 10, 2013 Maryk rated it really liked it
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
Jackie Snow
Mar 07, 2017 Jackie Snow rated it really liked it
Historian's historian. Took a midwife's journal with entries that were each maybe two or three sentences long and along with other research, built out the story of a woman, a town and a career. Just incredible.
David Nichols
Feb 23, 2011 David Nichols rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed
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
Apr 13, 2009 Ellen rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Dec 21, 2009 Susan rated it it was amazing
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
Sandra D
Nov 30, 2007 Sandra D rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 22, 2017 Ruth rated it liked it
Chuck full of interesting and thoroughly researched information....but it was hard to get through. I listened to the audio version, and it was like listening to hours and hours of a police blotter (as my husband put it). I think I would have enjoyed this more of I'd taken more time to get through it, and I think the audio was a bad idea too (unless it had been narrated by Ulrich herself, because she's much more interesting to listen to). I am, however, looking forward to discussing it at my book ...more
Apr 15, 2015 Lynne rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
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
Anna Pearce
Feb 22, 2010 Anna Pearce rated it it was amazing
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,
Jul 27, 2011 Linda rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 08, 2012 Doris rated it liked it
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
Jun 12, 2013 Erin rated it really liked it
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
Aug 27, 2009 Inder rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 05, 2015 Wendy rated it it was amazing
I can't believe I forgot to review this one! It was a Christmas present and I started reading right after I got it. What an interesting and heavy read. Martha Ballard's diary has never been fully transcribed or published, but this author takes snippets of the diary and explains the significance of the entries for the times and paints an amazing picture of Martha Ballard's life. I loved reading the parts in Martha's own words when she talks about her family. This was so thoroughly researched. It ...more
Jan 26, 2015 Karen rated it it was amazing
Shelves: re-read, comps
What a pleasant read, especially for my comprehensive exams! I first encountered this book as an undergrad in 2003 during my historical methods class, and while I enjoyed it then, I appreciate more now the considerable and imaginative work that it took for Laurel Thatcher Ulrich to turn this sparse source into a masterful tale of (primarily) 18th c. New England life. The timing of the diary (!785-1812) helped tremendously as it captured changing times - the least of which was politics. Religion, ...more
Jun 06, 2009 Lisa rated it really liked it
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
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
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
Martha Smith
Nov 16, 2011 Martha Smith rated it really liked it
Shelves: us-history
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.
Jan 12, 2010 Peacegal rated it it was ok
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.
Feb 19, 2014 Kathleen rated it it was amazing
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!
Megan Stolz
Dec 08, 2013 Megan Stolz rated it really liked it
This is really a unique book. Ulrich incorporates excerpts from her primary source, the diary of Martha Ballard, and then discusses and analyzes them. I don't believe there's a book out there that gives such depth to and information about colonial midwives. A must-read for anyone interested in early American history, women's history, or midwifery.
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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...

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