This month's recommendation comes from Nick Okrent, Coordinating Bibliographer for the Humanities and Librarian for History, Philosophy, Africana Studies, and Asian American Studies.

Nick's recommendation to read:
"A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812" by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Why I recommend this book:
The small town of Hallowell in far northeastern Massachusetts (the area which is now the state of Maine) was the home of the midwife Martha Ballard, who kept a diary for 27 years, from 1785 to 1812. A Midwife’s Tale uses the diary along with scores of contemporary documents to paint extraordinary, interlocking pictures of Martha, Hallowell, women, and the social life of New England towns in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Martha delivered two-thirds of the children born in the Hallowell region during this period—being so successful that the maternal death rate was significantly lower than that achieved in the United States in 1930—and was a devoted wife, mother, and participant in the local community. She consistently recorded her activities in her diary.

The book provides myriad details of Martha’s daily life—reports of conversations, visitors, gardening, and travels, but also provides details about the social and romantic intercourse of the region. Contrary to common belief, illegitimacy was common during this period of U.S. History. 38% of the firstborn Martha delivered were born out of wedlock. Because delivering mothers were required to report the identity of the father to the attending midwife (so that the cost of raising the child wouldn’t fall to the community), Martha was uniquely positioned to learn and record details about the intimate lives of those in the area, and the social and financial circumstances surrounding them. A Midwife’s Tale is at its most engaging when the author uses these details along with contemporary sources to answer big picture questions about New England society, including the significance of illegitimacy, the manner in which women could and could not participate in communal activities, the nature of domestic life, and the structure of rural towns in an often inhospitable part of the world. 

How you can read A Midwife's Tale:
Penn students and faculty can borrow A Midwife's Tale and related texts from the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center with their Penn Card. Alumni and friends of the Penn Libraries can also borrow our books for a yearly membership fee. Click here for information on how courtesy borrowers can access the Libraries' resources.