Midwives of the Revolution

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midwives of the revolutionTo the ever-growing list of things I don’t remember about American history is that Maine was once part of Massachusetts. One thing I do know about American history is that I am surely not hardy enough to have endured during Revolutionary times. I am reminded of this as I read A Midwife’s Tale, which opens with the slipping through the mire of the midwife and the carrying on of her day. Fall off a horse, slip through ice, stand up, and then continue on with your work day? Not a chance here. A Midwife’s Tale, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, chronicles the life of Martha Ballard based largely on Ballard’s own journals. Ballard, who died in 1812, lived on the Kennebec River in Maine, a place where the winters were rough, the wilderness close, the government not entirely entrenched, not entirely protective.

An enormous amount of work went into this book, comparing, as it does, the recordings of the diarist with other historical evidence to put together a more complete story. This book is probably the most compelling work I’ve read about that era, bringing to life the people of those times more than any other work I have found. We learn about medical treatments, about how worms are removed, how Christmas isn’t such a big deal. When Ballard isn’t delivering babies, she is gardening, or bartering, or having problems with a wayward son, or not necessarily getting along well with a daughter-in-law.

colonial craftsmenWhat I am most surprised by is how litigious this society is, how people go to jail for debts, how much women actually worked in careers instead of being self-sufficient do-it-alls. They were outsourcing even then, getting someone else to make a dress, or sharing supplies to weave. I am surprised, too, how religious these people aren’t, how sociable they are with people staying overnight in each other’s homes. There’s drinking and drunkenness and coffee, too. There’s everything we have to do plus much, much more physical hard work.

In reading this book, I travel through time to old New England but am surprised that my area in New York makes an appearance. A drunken pastor flees to Bedford after a rape case. Some people escape bad times by traveling.

If you’re planning a visit to historical sites in New England, this book will transport you.

—Lori Tripoli

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