Monday, March 30, 2015

A Midwife's Tale:  The Diary, the Book, the Film, the Websites

I learned of midwife Martha Ballard a number of  years ago when a friend recommended I read Laural Thatcher Ulrich's book, A Midwife's Tale:  The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812.  Since I have a midwife great-grandmother I thought it would be interesting reading even though their lives were nearly a century apart.  As it turned out, my great-grandmother and Martha seemed to have little in common other than helping mothers give birth to babies but, nonetheless, I found the book compelling reading.  Ulrich includes entries from the diary then interprets and discusses them, adding information and informing our understanding of the environment and times in which Martha lived.

Last year I learned that American Experience on PBS Home Video had available "A Midwife's Tale," which is based on Martha's Diary and Ulrich's book.  I promptly reserved it at our local library and watched it.  I thought it was exquisite.  I felt like I'd jumped back to rural Maine in the late 1700s.  It is narrated by Ulrich with music by Orison and shape-note singing by Word of Mouth Chorus.  As with her diary, the focus was not exclusively devoted to the duties of a midwife but included Martha's own family, her garden, her animals, keeping her house, making fabric and clothes, the weather, etc.

Further research led me to a website devoted to Martha Ballard's Diary:  DoHistory, "a site that shows you how to piece together the past from the fragments that have survived.  Our case study:  Martha Ballard."  At this website you can learn more about Martha, see digital images of her diary, and read about the creation of the film.  On Process of Making a Historical Film, you can learn about the research that went into making the movie and the efforts for historical accuracy.  I really like the thought that "the past is a foreign place" because it helped me realize how seriously the producer/writer, Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, took the making of this film and how important it was to strive for accuracy. 

Additionally, you can visit PBS's website, American Experience : A Midwife's Tale where you can find links to even more information about the film including links to special features,

I can't say enough good about the book and the film.  They go hand-in-hand, one with the written word, the other bringing the written word to life.  If you have female ancestors who lived during the mid- to late-1700s into the early 1800s, you won't want to miss reading this book and watching the film to find a deeper understanding of the lives of the women among your ancestors.


Copyright © 2015 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.


  1. I want to read this book now and watch the movie! I'll have to look into it! It looks intriguing!

    1. Let me know what you think if you do, Brenna.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation - I'm sure I would enjoy both the book and the film


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