Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Midwife's Tale

By Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
“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. That she delivered 816 babies during that time period with a higher living birth rate than some countries today. She kept an exhaustive record of her travels from house to house, helping not just the pregnant women but the sick and afflicted, her daily accounts of the weather, and her business dealings. We hear of her gardening, her cooking, the washing, and the spinning of wool to sell.

As she ages, we feel the affects of time as she complains of being tired and not well, but still she works, delivering babies, battling prejudice from male doctors, handling religious squabbles, dealing with armed settlers, and most especially loneliness when her husband is kept in debtor’s prison for over a year.

Such “trivia” would’ve been all but ignored but for Ulrich, who looked between the lines and found a heart-felt story within; a story that won a Pulitzer. By uncovering the subplots of Martha’s daily life, from someone’s hasty marriage, lingering labor, or sojourn to jail, she revealed a grander hidden picture of eighteenth-century social history.

I found this book to be fascinating, and I can’t believe I’ve never read it before. What women had to go through just amazes me. So many of their children died and yet these women persevered. And the medical practices, I just couldn’t believe what they used for remedies, and yet I found their return to a simpler time somehow comforting. Everything was much less complicated back then. Martha did really well for herself. She made her own money and took care of her and her own families needs, as well as countless of her neighbors. She did not sit idly back and let history write her off. She wrote her own. What would’ve been lost if she hadn’t? A treasure. For anybody that likes history, this is an excellent read. Stephanie also wrote a great review of this. See here. 4.5 stars


Stephanie said...

This book really has made such an impression on me. I learned so much about that time period, and Martha was so amazing that I have to tell people about her all the time now (seriously!). I'm waiting for someone to blurt out, "That's all I hear about...Martha, Martha, Martha!" (said in one's best Jan Brady voice).

Lula O said...

Oh, poor Jan..I picture her voice perfectly. It was a really interesting book. I, too, have read so much historical stuff lately that I find my mind drifting back in time often. Especially when the kids are bugging me :P