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A Midwife’s Tale

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

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Themes

Themes

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Though Martha is reluctant to write down her own opinion on certain matters, her actions always make her feelings about a topic clear. She never mentions her views of equality in her diary, but she does record that she goes out to deliver black children with the same speed and skill that she does the white ones. She never discusses her opinion of the Fosters, but she cares about the family enough to stay away from church for the four years that it is controlled by the people who chased them away. Martha is careful not to state her feelings about Judge North’s acquittal, but she retains negative enough feelings about the man that when her daughters get married, they all go out of their way to make sure someone other than North marries them. Martha’s opinion of local doctors comes through in her treatment toward them. She occasionally defers to their specialized skills but generally sees them as completely unnecessary.

The Importance of Simple Moments

Much of the significance of Martha’s diary comes from the simple rhythms of her daily life rather than from the dramatic events she experiences and witnesses. Though Martha’s descriptions of dangerous rides and crossing the frozen Kennbec River are exciting, it is the gentle practicality with which she treated the families she was attending that reveal most clearly what it meant to be a mother and social healer during that time period. Though Martha was a close neighbor to the Purrintons, her description of their murder-suicide is far more limited and less detailed then records from other sources. The simple, comprehensive records of the illegitimate babies she delivered as part of her regular workload, however, offer new insight into sexuality and marriage customs of early New England. Martha generally avoids the story of what Ephraim may have experienced in debtor’s prison, but her slowly self-defeating struggle to survive winter without her husband there to offer assistance truly shows the damage that debtor’s prison could cause to people’s lives.

The Contentment of a Well-Ordered Life

In the sections of the diary where Martha seems the most at peace, her life is functioning smoothly and efficiently. Early in the diary, when she still has daughters and nieces she trusts living at home to take on the responsibility of housework, the entries clip along with the activity-focused efficiency Martha prefers. After the girls marry and move out, leaving Martha to tackle a mountain of housework along with her usual load of deliveries, complaints and talk of weariness begin to appear ever-increasingly in her diary. Chaos now awaits her each time she returns home from a delivery, and her inability to predict the behavior of her now-independent children adds chaos to her personal life. Only in the last section of her diary does talk of Martha’s difficult life slowly begin to disappear from the pages. Grandchildren appear to lessen the load of housework, and Martha decides not to dwell on her children’s behavior, instead focusing on her garden, the part of the world she can order as she sees fit.

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How long does Martha stay away from the church controlled by the people who forced out the Fosters?
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Six months
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