Oct 2, 2014

A Midwife's Tale

The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 
by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

I thought this book would be a collection of case studies, or at least an account of the woman's life told in narrative fashion. It's not. The diary it is based on were the records kept by a midwife in an early Maine settlement. Her diary was very sparse- noting down who she tended to, who she visited, who came to her house, where she went, sometimes what herbs or cures she used, how people recovered (or didn't) and what she was paid in return for her services (sometimes a year or more later!) There's very little description. The work of the author is incredible in contrast- she meticulously combs through the diary to see how all the parts fit together, the untold story behind the succinct phrases. She compares Martha Ballard's account to other diaries from the same era, and uses historical records from the town to piece together what might have been going on. Unraveling a complex web of commerce and relationships, laying bare the hard work that women did behind the scenes as it were. I was impressed in particular with the effort it took to make clothing- Martha grew her own flax, but the preparation of it after harvesting took over a years' time, and various people worked through the final process to turn it into cloth, then clothing. More than just household industry and how this complemented or complicated Martha's job as a midwife, the author examines what the role of midwife was compared to town physicians, how she interacted with them, how other women also used healing arts. She looks at marital relationships, disease epidemics, accusations of rape, murders and other trials.

But the way it is all patched together- little bits of terse quotes from the diary, excerpts from other records, a brief musing sentence here and there- rather gave me a headache. It's not smooth reading. For the right reader, this would be fascinating, even a book to be treasured. For the casual interest, it's rather dry and difficult to wade through. I did not make it so far. Too bad. This book won a Pulitzer prize! If you're interested in cultural history or women's studies, I'd definitely give this book a try. It's just not for me. At least, not right now.

Abandoned      445 pages, 1990


Susan said...

I own this book! A friend gave it to me many years ago. Every time I think I should just give up on it, I look at it and think "but it has real women's experiences and history here that is so difficult to find, especially from the women themselves. So I keep it for that one day...I'm interested to see that you found it difficult to get into, which I do admit I have read the first page or two and have wondered at it. I'll keep it in mind when I do read it.

As always an interesting review, and I know I'd want to get this book if I didn't already own it!

Jeane said...

That's what I really felt- this book is valuable for what it contains, and all the work the author did to make it comprehensible to the reader. But for casual enjoyment, even of the learning type, I'm afraid it didn't work for me. It's still on my shelf though...