A Midwife’s Tale

Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

full title A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812

author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

type of work Historical portrait

genre Nonfiction, history

language English

time and place written New England, 1980s

date of first publication 1990

publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

narrator Ulrich and Martha’s diary entries

point of view The passages from Martha’s diary are in the first person; Ulrich’s writing is in the third person.

tone Though occasionally given to self-pity, Martha generally talks about her life in very factual terms, and Ulrich only rarely disagrees with Martha’s perceptions of events and people.

tense Past tense

setting (time) 1785–1812

setting (place) Augusta (originally Hallowell), a small town in Maine

protagonist Martha Ballard

major conflict Martha struggles through the many challenges of raising a family and having a career in early New England.

rising action As Martha assists midwives with deliveries, she gives birth to eight children of her own, losing three of them to a diphtheria epidemic.

climax Martha and her children follow Ephraim to Hallowell, where her age and experience make her the town’s most popular midwife.

falling action Martha raises her children and holds onto her career through illness, age, depression, and family trauma.

themes Actions speak louder than words; the importance of simple moments; the contentment of a well-ordered life

motifs Births; community relations; responsibility

symbols Martha’s house; Martha’s garden; prayer


 · While surveying, Ephraim is attacked by settlers who feel they are protecting the land they had cleared. Later, settlers kill another surveyor and threaten the entire town for the same reason.
 · Before moving to Hallowell, Martha loses three of her daughters to a diphtheria epidemic. Later, Martha must help protect the children of Hallowell from a scarlet fever epidemic.
 · When Martha is alive, male doctors are growing in popularity and respectability. Later, Martha’s great-great-granddaughter must follow their ways in order to practice healing like Martha did.