16 April 2010
Book Analysis #2
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
The captivating storyline and characters of Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale is almost certain to spark the interest of readers. It is not simply the events within the book that are of interest however, the way in which the author has assembled the events truly defines the work. A Midwife’s Tale depicts not only the life that Martha Ballard lived; it also brings to life the community in which she lived in Revolutionary Maine. More specifically, Ulrich describes the often overlooked role of women within the community as not only participants, but as important components. The devotion to this issue by Ulrich is most clearly seen in the September chapter, in which she provides an in depth view of the economic dealings that seemingly existed both out in the open and out of view at the same time. It is important first, to understand the importance of the book as a whole however.
It is not likely that an average person would see the diary of Martha Ballard and draw a compelling portrait form what is read. Even while holding Ulrich’s work and reading the words of Ballard’s diary, which are provided at the beginning of each chapter, the words of Charles Elvenston Nash, who had done earlier work with the diary, best summarize my feelings, it is “trivial and unimportant” (8-9). The lesson that Ulrich provides is best articulated in her introduction; “it is in the very dailiness, the exhaustive, repetitious dailiness that the real power of Martha Ballard’s book lies” (8-9). The way in which Ulrich finds a way to intertwine so many different sources, in order to better illustrate the happenings in and around Martha’s life is detective like. Her work shows that it is inherent laziness, rather than inability to find meaning, which defines the narrow view that I initially met the words of Martha Ballard with.
It is lazy to look at the Martha’s diary and not find an underlying story because for whatever reason, the role of a woman within her Revolutionary American community is not documented in the conventional sense. Given that the records must be deciphered and put together in a non-traditional manner, most will not make the effort. In her chapter titled September, Ulrich displays the “web” within the community that held much of the female economic input (75). The way in which the word web is used to describe the economy works well because “in Martha’s vocabulary a “web” was a quantity of thread woven” (75). The “weaving” that took place included a great deal of familial involvement, to include daughters and nieces, with spinning, midwifery, medicine and mercantile trade among other items being traded and bartered (75-85). I find that this example works extremely well in defining exactly what it is that made up the female portion of the economy, which rather than existing on its own, worked to complete the economy as a whole.
The beauty of A Midwife’s Tale is not merely the story; instead, it is the way in which Ulrich has demanded a new approach to seeing women in history. She showed her predecessors that the same work that they deemed to be “filled with trivia about domestic chores and pastimes” could be used in conjunction with other works to uncover an often overlooked aspect of history, the role of women (9). The clearest picture drawn by Ulrich is that of the economic impact women had on their world. While they may not have kept records, as a store clerk would, their wheeling and dealing was just as important to the functioning of society, and in the case of Martha, better documented (86). It is important for historians to recognize the female’s contributions to society which are visible, yet too often unseen.