Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Review: A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

History is endlessly fascinating to me.  Learning about how real people lived decades, centuries, even millennia ago - so different in so many ways to our lives today, yet so similar in others - makes me feel connected to those who have gone before.

I'm also fascinated by the process historians go through to better understand the past.  It seems obvious to me that whether in science or history or any other area of study, as new information is discovered, as new data is gathered, as new connections are made, as distance provides broader perspective, our understanding will change, sometimes radically.  I've seen the phrase "revisionist history" thrown around as a condescending epithet to describe new interpretations of historical events that challenge the traditional interpretation, but shouldn't we constantly be revising our understanding of history?  Shouldn't it be a goal to replace our mistaken assumptions or misunderstandings with a better picture of how it really was, or to try to fill in the gaps a little more, even if that challenges previous conclusions?

Early on in her introduction to the Pulitzer-Prize-winning A Midwife's Tale, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich mentions that several other historians have been aware of Martha Ballard's diary and even quoted parts of it in their histories of Augusta, Maine, but "those few historians who have known about the diary have not known quite what to do with it."  The repetitive structure, the rhythm of domestic chores and seasonal planting, growing, and harvesting cycles of life on a farm, were dismissed as unimportant "trivia".  "Yet," Ulrich claims, "it is in the vary dailiness, the exhaustive, repetitious dailiness, that the real power of Martha Ballard's book lies."  She goes on to explain :
The problem is not that the diary is trivial but that it introduces more stories than can easily be recovered and absorbed...Taken alone, such stories tell us too much and not enough, teasing us with glimpses of intimate life, repelling us with a reticence we cannot decode.  Yet, read in the broader context of the diary and in relation to larger themes in eighteenth-century history, they can be extraordinarily revealing.
Martha kept her diary for more than twenty-seven years, "9,965 days to be exact," a remarkable accomplishment itself in a time when it was not common for women of her station to be sufficiently educated to do so.  Ulrich extracted a wealth of information from the "trivia" of Martha's daily life and helps to complete the picture of what daily life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was like for people in New England, and particularly expanded our understanding of the practice of midwives at the time.

Her results alone demonstrate to her abilities as a midwife, aside from her deep devotion and care for her patients.  Her diary records 814 deliveries she attended; 768 of them were apparently uncomplicated deliveries notated as "delivered" or "safe delivered".  She recorded complications in only 5.6% of the births. Not a single mother died during delivery, and only five died during the "lying-in period" shortly after birth.  Of the 814 deliveries, 14 were stillbirths, and five newborns died within a couple of hours.  While that's still high compared to today's standards, it was remarkably low for the time compared to physicians and particularly hospitals in large cities.  "In some eighteenth-century London and Dublin hospitals, maternal mortality ranged for 30 to 200(!) per thousand births, compared with 5 per 1,000 for Martha."  

And the stories Ulrich mines!  Hasty weddings and babies born just three months later, a mass murder just up the lane of a family by the father, the politics of small town New England, the factions lining up for and against the new preacher, the worry over a son's imprudent actions, the marriages and "going to housekeeping" of two daughters, who goes to debtors' prison and why.  Using transcribed sections of Martha's diary, Ulrich reflects on not only Martha's life, but that of her family, her community, and her society at large.

Aside from her diary, Martha is almost completely absent from the records of the time.  Without her commitment to keeping a record of her daily tasks, and Ulrich's commitment almost two hundred years later to combing through the rich record to extract a sense of who this woman was, Martha Ballard's legacy would be lost.  If left up to previous historians, Martha's life and accomplishments would be almost entirely unknown.  Instead, she has been ensured a type of immortality rather than perpetual anonymity and obscurity.

This is the best kind of "revisionist history".

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812
by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
ISBN: 9780679733768
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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