This book is one of the most interesting stories that I have ever read. I purchased on a whim when it came up on my book bub list for $1.99 and am so happy that I did. The beginning/intro was a little tedious but once you get into the actual diary excerpts it is wonderful. It stayed with me for days after I read it and I have recommended this book to many people.
Ulrich brings us inside the life and mind of a regular early American woman in a way unlike any other author. She manages to find what's important and interesting in even the seemingly must mundane aspects of everyday life.
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. The episode underscores how necessary a reliable pool of labor was to the running of any rural household; southern families had their slaves; northern families had their daughters. Historian John Lewis Gaddis calls this book "an exercise in historical paleontology [that] succeeds brilliantly." Winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for history.