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A Midwife's Tale | Article

Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning


Time Period 1785-1812

Themes: the process of writing history, post-Revolutionary frontier life, social change, early medicine, women's history

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, "A Midwife's Tale" explores the story of Martha Ballard, a midwife and mother living on the post-Revolutionary Maine frontier. Ballard is central to the lives of many people in her community. She is present when people are born, often spends the night assisting those who are sick and even prepares bodies for burial. In her own life, she struggles against poverty, disease and domestic abuse. Her story is interwoven with historian Ulrich's eight-year quest to flesh out Ballard's world from her daily entries.

Note: You may wish to preview this film before assigning it to your class or choosing which segments to use. It includes two brief scenes of non-sexual nudity and several dramatizations of childbirth.

Before Watching

1. Help your students appreciate the process and challenges of reconstructing and writing history. Break students into small groups and give each group a small brown bag. Tell students the bags contain trash found in a hotel room and each group must write a brief description of the person who used the room. (For example, one bag might contain a chewing gum wrapper, a receipt from a pet store, a feather, a straw hat, and an empty bag of bird seed. What can you conclude about the person who used these items and the world they lived in?) The description must be based upon the evidence in the brown bag. Have each group share and defend the decisions they made. Then lead a group discussion: How does this relate to how historical accounts are created? What kinds of information do historians use? How do you think an historian works with these sources to create a work of history?

2. Are there different kinds of history? List some of them [e.g., military history, political history, art history, social history]. What is different about them? In what ways is social history unique and particularly challenging?

After Watching

1. Discuss with students the film's documentary style. In what ways is the use of dramatic re-creation an effective method to share Martha's diary? How might a more traditional documentary, with third-person narration and no re-creations, have been different? How would reading the diary be different? Is this film a work of history? Why or why not?

2. Write the following quote from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich on the board:

"My connection to the past, like any historian's, is through the stuff that's left behind. It's not an imaginative connection, although imagination is part of it. It's about documents, it's about sources, it's about clues, it's about the leavings, the shards, the remnants of people who once lived and don't live anymore. Without documents, there's no history. And women left very few documents behind."

What are the implications of this statement, both in terms of how history is written and the possibility of establishing historical fact?

3.This film is based on Martha's diary and therefore offers only her perspective. Write the fictional diary of her son Jonathan, or of her daughter-in-law Sally, that helps to explain how they respond to Martha and why they move into her house.

4.Ask students to read and report on other books about early colonial life, the northern frontier, midwifery, or women's history. How does the early colonial world in the account they read compare to and complement Martha Ballard's? Possible titles include:

Boydston, Jeanne. Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic. Yale University Press, 1990.

Hawke, David Freeman. Everyday Life in Early America. Harper & Row, 1988.

Rae, Noel (ed.). Witnessing America: The Library of Congress Book of Firsthand Accounts of Life in America 1600-1900. The Stonesong Press, 1996.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750. Vintage Books, 1991.

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