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A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 Paperback – June 4, 1991

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 444 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; Reprint edition (June 4, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679733760
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679733768
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #123,197 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The diary of a midwife and herbalist reveals the prevalence of violence, crime and premarital sex in rural 18th-century New England. "Fleshing out this midwife's bare entries with interpretive essays . . . Ulrich marvelously illuminates women's status, the history of medicine and daily life in the early Republic," said PW . Illustrated.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

This book is a model of social history at its best. An exegesis of Ballard's diary, it recounts the life and times of this obscure Maine housewife and midwife. Using passages from the diary as a starting point for each chapter division, Ulrich, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, demonstrates how the seemingly trivial details of Ballard's daily life reflect and relate to prominent themes in the history of the early republic: the role of women in the economic life of the community, the nature of marriage and sexual relations, the scope of medical knowledge and practice. Speculating on why Ballard kept the diary as well as why her family saved it, Ulrich highlights the document's usefulness for historians.
- Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., N.J.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

I offer this book as a gift of a wonderful woman's life.
Cynthia A. Handly
We are so fortunate Laurel thatcher Ulrich wrote this book and that the diary of Martha Ballard was preserved.
Search Gene
I love this book, it is really interesting to read and was glad it was available on Kindle!

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

151 of 156 people found the following review helpful By Ruth on December 3, 2000
Format: Paperback
Laura Ulrich rewrites history, using an overlooked diary written by a midwife 200 years ago. In 1928, Virginia Woolf (in A Room of One's Own)complained they we don't know how women in the past spent their time. We don't, and it's extraordinary how much a little bit of information about these women can change the way we think about society, women and history. The brilliance of this book lies in its ordinariness. Martha Ballard's life is not described in such detail because of anything she did that was unusual or exceptional. She was an ordinary women who worked hard and raised her family like so many have done. No, the fascination comes from the fact that such women (and their impact on society and social change) are usually invisible to us. Sometimes, as a modern woman, I find it hard not to despise many of the women you read about in history books: pathetic, passive, ignorant, helpless, victims, or Great Heroines. Martha Ballard is just like a woman we might know today: bossy, sensible, often (I would imagine) fairly stubborn. She had great influence on the society in which she lived. It's a mistake to think that this book is only for feminists or history buffs(as some have written) just because it's about a woman. It involves a qualitative shift in the way we think about history, and as such it demands our respect. This is one of the most important books I have read for years, and I can't recommend it highly enough.
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69 of 72 people found the following review helpful By Karen Sampson Hudson on February 21, 2002
Format: Paperback
Thanks to gifted historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, I hear the voice of Martha Ballard as she goes about her productive, meaningful life in late 1700s Maine. I also feel her shining, transcedent spirit nearby as I read. Martha's diary is filled with the cycle of neverending chores that still characterize the lives of women today. As caretakers, we cook, launder, clean, over and over again. Martha's diary also opens our eyes to the lot of our earlier sisters as they lived through (if fortunate, they lived) an 18-month to two year cycle of pregnancy, birth, and lactation.

Martha ministers to them both in body and spirit; and the entire, closely bonded community of post-colonial wives and mothers is depicted in her story.

"I returned home at 10 hour morn, find my house alone and everything in Arms. Did not find time to still down till 2 pm." How this still resonates as women try combine work in the outside world with the unrelenting demands of domesticity!

Kudoes to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich for this brilliantly edited, extremely necessary part of American history---a woman's life as told by observant, compassionate, hard-working Martha Ballard. Ulrich has included statistics of maternal and infant mortality that cause one to question the wisdom of the "heroic intervention" style of obstetrics that came later: Martha experienced only about a 4% loss rate, which stands up impressively until the days when antibiotics reduced the mortality rate to insignificance.
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46 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Teresa Carpenter on December 26, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
We've heard stories of how our great-great-great-grandmothers rose before dawn, plowed the lower forty, baked biscuits and then raised a barn, all before noon. A Midwife's Tale seems to confirm this. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich draws upon a remarkable document, the diary of a New England midwife, Martha Ballard of Hallowell, Maine, who recorded the details of her daily life between 1785 to 1812. Ulrich deconstructs Ballard's laconic entries to reveal the complex routine of a woman who kept a household for seven people, ran a cottage textile workshop, and served as midwife at the birth 816 infants during her 27 years of practice. (There were male physicians in the community, but they rarely intervened in this woman-dominated ritual unless there was a breech or still-birth to be dismembered.) Ballard's ministrations, in fact, went far beyond birthing to the practice of general medicine. She could apply poultices, lance abscesses, expel worms, induce vomiting, stop hemorrhages, bring down a fever, and - all else failing -- gently close the eyes of the dead. In this way, writes Ulrich, the midwife "mediated the mysteries of birth, procreation, illness, and death."

With the help of collateral documents, Ulrich fills out Ballard's entries to give a more complete view of society in a milling village of the early 1800's. She also tracks Ballard's personal fortunes from the height of her prestige into eventual decline. The author takes pains to point out how much of this misfortune was inevitable (the elderly of any era are of necessity pushed from the center to the circumference of society) and how much was due to the hand dealt by fate: Martha had her daughters before her sons; the girls married and moved out, leaving their mother the care of three rather loutish males.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Cynthia A. Handly on June 22, 2006
Format: Paperback
I have read "A Midwife's Tale" so many times that it has fallen apart. I went on Amazon to see if I could find a hard copy to replace the one I wore to pieces. When I saw the reviews, I decided to put my two cents in. I was also compelled to puchase the video based on this book. The video did an excellent job of translating the book to video and putting a voice to Martha. Although I was intrigued by the concept of a complete diary of a midwife, I was not prepared for the impact it would have on me. As an alternative health care provider, I often use herbs to help patients and have actually assisted in the delivery of 3 babies. I am an older woman that has raised my children and now have grandchildren. Martha's life parallelled mine in so many ways. She had a hard time finding help, her children were less then obedient, particularily her eldest son. Premarital sex was rampant. Her husband seemed to often ignore her. He was perfectly happy in jail while she froze at home while her children neglected her. Her faith in a God carried her so many times. I began to casually start reading chapters whenever I was having a particularily difficult day, thinking to myself, "I wonder what challenge Martha overcame this chapter?" She touched my life in such a tender, loving, healing way even though our lives were seperated by 100's of years. I wonder if she ever thought who would read her diary in the future and what an inspiration she would be? I offer this book as a gift of a wonderful woman's life.
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