Monday, May 18, 2009

A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (review)

Title: A Midwife's Tale - The Life of Martha Ballad, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812
Author: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Illustrator: Karen Hansen
Pages: 444
Genre: Non-Fiction
Dewey Decimal: 974.16 B
ISBN: 0-679-73376-0
Cost: $5

Often times I walk into a book store with an idea of what I'm going to buy. And even if I don't have a specific title I want, there are general areas I tend to haunt. In modern bookstores I'll gravitate to the fantasy and science-fiction sections. I may quickly browse the true crime or kids books or even history, but most of my time is spent losing myself in other worlds with heros that swing swords and cast spells. In antique bookstores, I'll look for old copies of the Hardy Boys from the 1940s or try to find some sort of historical reference to Nebraska (where my father's family comes from).

So when I walked out of the local antique shop, I did not expect to be so happy to find a book about a midwife operating in the late 1700s/early 1800s.

With Dr. Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale, we meet a different kind of hero swinging a different kind of sword and casting nothing prayers instead of spells. And that hero, Martha Ballard, is what took me by surprise.

Dr. Ulrich does a wonderful job of setting the scene of the chapter by letting you read excerpts of Martha's diary. From there, you're taken on a historical adventure that covers river crossings, births, deaths, and even murder. But beneath it all is the ultimate character novel. Nothing fictional about it, Martha Ballard once lived. And even knowing she's no longer alive, you still want to find out about her life. And it's with this skill that it is no wonder Dr. Ulrich won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 (for History).

But in the end, this book spoke to me on another level entirely. One that I had dared to hope for when I walked out the door after buying it. You see, my great-great grandmother as a midwife. She arrived from Norway in 1873, spent a few years in Detroit, then moved to Nebraska in 1884. At what point she became a midwife, I have no idea. But based on the family's Gordemodre artifact, I would guess it was in Norway. And based on the Jean Mette lancete (or sneppert in Norsk), it appears she did more than study.

So discovering this small window into the past was neat. Reading somebody's journal was voyeuristic. Learning what a person had to endure during that period of history was depressing. But to top it all, even if it was years before the midwife in my own family was born, to learn what a midwife did was the best. In the end, I'd recommend it to anyone interested in history.

You can read more about Martha Ballard on the DoHistory website.
You can read more about Gordemodre on the Unidentified Family Objects blog.

If you can read and translate Norsk or Bokmal, please send me an email at

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