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

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  7,237 ratings  ·  743 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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Dec 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1991. The author does an excellent job of weaving the diary of Martha Ballard with the political and economic events of the late 18th Century in what is now Augusta, Maine. Without the diary of one courageous but ordinary woman, we would now know little about the obstetrical practices of midwives of that period.

Martha, known only as Mrs. Ballard, provided the needed care of women and children in that part of Maine. Her high rate of successful deli
Lisa Butterworth
Oct 08, 2008 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 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
Feb 07, 2009 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
Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship
This is an interesting history/biography that’s both accessible and scholarly. Ulrich uses the bare-bones journal of a midwife in early New England, kept from age about 50 through her late 70s, to illuminate the social history of early Maine, as well as Martha Ballard’s own life and family drama. Ulrich clearly digs deep, cross-referencing many sources including official documents and other diarists from the area.

The result is surprisingly rich, and includes some major events (a backwoods rebell
Apr 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An interesting account of one woman's day to life in the late 1700's to early 1800's in New England. ...more
Oct 06, 2013 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
Sep 14, 2010 rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jul 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
I am so thankful to live in the age of modern medicine!
Martha Ballard was a caring, talented midwife who helped to deliver hundreds of babies. She also nursed neighbors through their illnesses and prepared the dead for burial. She had a strong faith in a sovereign God which gave her much comfort in the many trials she encountered.
Ulrich weaves a tapestry of the social, political, economic, familial, religious, & medical ways of Martha's day along with her journal of the every day work she faith
Nov 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
History is endlessly fascinating to me. Learning about how real people lived decades, centuries, even millennia ago - so different in so many ways to our lives today, yet so similar in others - makes me feel connected to those who have gone before.

I'm also fascinated by the process historians go through to better understand the past. It seems obvious to me that whether in science or history or any other area of study, as new information is discovered, as new data is gathered, as new connections
Jan 08, 2013 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
Feb 25, 2008 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 car
Jan 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
From a simple casebook / diary the author extrapolates a wealth of information about the lives of an entire community in early American New England. Using just the clues written by Martha, we learn about the most mundane to the most scandalous events that happen to these most ordinary of citizens. Martha wasn't just a midwife, but a healer, confidante, and keen observer of humankind. Strikingly, it's amazing how much of Martha's story parallels what our own lives are like more than 200 years lat ...more
Mitch Rogers
Sep 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
I mean, talk about historian’s craft as performance art. “See this diary? With it I shall make... history!”

Or, describing her approach in her own words,

“There is no center, only a kind of grid, faint trails of experience converging and deflecting across a single day.”
Mar 10, 2013 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
May 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Meredith Watts
Nov 28, 2007 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
I very much enjoyed this look into Martha Ballard's life. I had expected this book to be primarily about her midwifery, but was pleasantly surprised to see that her diary delved into aspects of daily life, social interactions, and local scandals as well. The discussions about premarital sex and pregnancy were particularly interesting, and getting insight into debtors' imprisonment was also fascinating. I loved the index of herbs/medicines/etc. that was included at the end as well.

The nonstandar
Laura Jane
Feb 26, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely stunning work. I was completely immersed in the world of Martha Ballard what care the author took to uncover her life truthfully and respectfully. The research was meticulous.I’ll be thinking about this for a long time.
Mar 07, 2017 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. ...more
masterclass in primary sources analysis & social history. oh you think reading about women weaving and growing plants and visiting people's houses is boring? well you have to read it now and you have to respect women's economy and you have to not care about what men care about and instead shape your view of history from the perspective of the attendants of life and death. what now? ...more
Feb 25, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Besides being a wonderful intriguing story, this 'Tale' offers timeless insight into social economies, family struggles, eternal truths of aging and more. Having built around the bones of my father's letters from WW2 combat, I was particularly intrigued and impressed by the additional research, even the willingness to offer conjecture, that filled out ( and in) the rich fullness of the story. I hope I am a better, more compassionate, patient, justly committed person for having read this "Tale". ...more
Sandra The Old Woman in a Van
This Pulitzer Prize winning biography/history may not be for everyone but I loved it. It is the rendering of the diary of an 18th century midwife in Maine, interpreted along with corresponding documents of the same time and place. Basically it an accounting of an ordinary woman’s life at the time. I was so impressed with Martha and enthralled to see the economy, medical care, home and community life from the eyes of a woman. This is a rare text indeed, and expertly put together in a book. It imp ...more
David Nichols
Feb 23, 2011 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 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 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
Nov 08, 2012 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
Sandra D
Nov 30, 2007 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
Jan 15, 2009 rated it really liked it
This book took me F O R E V E R to finish. This is the first time in my life the library has almost refused to let me keep a book. I had to beg them to let me check it out one last time. Luckily, they let me, and I finished it. It's a good book, gets a little tedious by the end, but still a worthwhile history of Maine in the late 1700's taken from the diary of a midwife who wrote nearly every day for something like 37 years. I've forgotten already how long it was... Won the Pulitzer Prize for Hi ...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
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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

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“[She] was a true light upon a hill. She was a person of humility, affability, compassion and on whose tongue was the law of kindness. Her ear was open to the complaints of the afflicted, and her hand was open for the supply of the needy. If others were so unhappy as to divide into parties and to burn with contention, yet she remained a common friend to all. She was...ready to minister to them to the utmost of her power.” 0 likes
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