Midwife's Tale by Laurel Ulrich. The author of this paper explores the book, the film and a web site about the story to compare and contrast the three. Using information from each source we are given the opportunity to evaluate the importance each site places on certain events and beliefs.
A MIDWIFE'S TALE
Throughout history, we have used archived and discovered journals to help us piece together what happened before us. Many slavery accounts came from former slaves, while many accounts of politics came from the journals of politicians. Rarely, however, do we get a look at the pure way of life for the average poor American. A Midwife's Tale, is a recreation of the actual diary pages of Martha Ballard. Ballard lived in the 18th century and recorded many of the every day ways of life that she witnessed. Years later we are fascinated to learn what her life and the lives around her were like. Even with her diaries in our possession to lean on each interpretation of them is tempered by the mind of the person who does the interpreting. There is a book a film and a web site all dedicated to the diaries of Martha Ballard. Each one is similar in its purpose and tales but each one also has some differences as the author of each venue interprets the importance of the recorded events.
Before we can compare the book, film and web site we first must understand the significance of Martha Ballard's life and career. In the days of Martha Ballard, women were hard working and dedicated to their lives. A midwife was often all that was available to doctor not only the pregnant but those who suffered from regular ailments as well. Ballard's tales are recorded in a diary that has now been converted to a book. The book was converted to a movie and of course there is a web site. Each avenue of exploration of her works is influenced by the lives and experiences of those who are exploring the work. So while we have three accounts of the same diary each one holds a little different view of what was important to tell and they also share similarities in their understanding of those events.
In any subject the book usually has an advantage over a movie because the book allows us to use our own mind's eye to play out the scenes as we read them (Ulrich, 1991). In this case the book and the movie are probably equal in many areas. Martha Ballard had nine children of her own. Reading about that alone can give us an idea of the work she invested to do so, but watching the movie gives us a chance to see exactly what nine children look like in a family. The book as well as the movie focus more on the last 27 years of her life (Ulrich, 1991). This is when she became a midwife and spent her days and nights traveling from home to home taking care of expectant mothers and delivering their children when the time came.
This is another instance where the web site and book may give one view while the movie gives another. When reading about the various births we will naturally relate them to our own experiences or the experiences of those we know. Watching the movie keeps us focused on the situation at hand and does not allow us to stray into our own experience and draw comparisons.
Because there was not a doctor in town, Ballard was called on to perform a number of medical services. This was played out in the book in a larger scale than it was in the movie. Time is always a difficult factor when making a film. A book can go on for as many pages as needed before it comes to its reasonable end. In the movie, the budget dictates that many important aspects are often cut out and left on the editing floor. In the case of A Midwife's Tale it is evident that the film wanted to focus more on the midwife duties and did not have a lot of time to devote to the other aspects of her career, though it was made clear that she did other things.
Another difference evidenced between the film and the other two sites is the fact that Ballard was actually a feminist. While both written sites address it with words the film allows us to see the knowing looks or the anger in men's eyes when she sometimes speaks out and shows a strength that was uncommon in that era.
While all three are seemingly accurate portrayals of the real life diary, the film has to deviate at times because of its own medium weakness. Films by and large have to grab ones attention and hold it or the audience does not recommend it to others. This causes many filmmakers to sensationalize the stories they put on the screen. It is a common ploy and one that was used in this case as well. While the events in the film were accurate if held against the diaries themselves the choice of which things to put in the film was heavily weighted toward maintaining the audience interest. This equated to ignoring a lot of the everyday mundane entries that actually make the book the rare gem that it is. The film stays within the confines of truth but leaves out the things, which may not translate, well to the big screen. The book and the web site can detail those things in a way that they are no longer mundane but a rich piece of the story's fabric.
Another difference between the three sites is the way things are told. The web site has excerpts from the actual diary whereas the book and the film spend the bulk of their time translating it for the audience. The actual diary is written in quick and short sentences that let us know she was a no nonsense type of person.
"I am at Mrs. Howards watching with her son. Went out about day, discovered our saw mill in flames. The men at the fort went over. Found it consumed altogether with some plank & bords. I tarried till evinng. Left James Exceedingly Dangerously ill. My daughter Hannah is 18 years old this day. Mrs. Williams here when I came home. Hannah Cool gott Mrs. Norths web out at the Loome. Mr. Ballard complains of a soar throat this night. He has been to take Mr. gardners hors home (Ballard, 1787)."
There are many events that all three mediums felt were important enough to address. One of them was the mass murder that occurred in the house of Ballard's neighbor. Ballard wrote it with simple short and to the point words while the book turned it into something more substantial and compelling to the reader, as did the web site.
"James Purrington, a respected citizen of Bowdoinham, moved his family to the Ballard neighborhood of Augusta in August of 1805. The reason has been forgotten. Through the following winter and spring, the family integrated into the neighborhood, appearing now and then at the Ballard house.
In July of 1806, the neighborhood was shocked by the murder of Mrs. Purrington and her six children. The murderer was the husband and father, Capt. Purrington, who then killed himself. One Purrington daughter, Martha, lingered with injuries for three weeks before dying at Jonathan Ballard's house. One Purrington son, James, escaped and survived with minor injuries.
Martha Ballard prepared the bodies for burial and helped some with Martha Purrington's care. She and the townspeople attended the funerals. Surviving Purrington family members -- son James, brother Hezekiah -- boarded at the Ballard house after the murders while they attended to the family's affairs ( Midwife's Tale http://www.dohistory.org/diary/themes/purrinton/index.html). "
The web site does offer something that the film and the book lack. The web site offers a commentary about what some of the entries mean. One example of this is the story about Ballard's son getting his girlfriend pregnant. In today's society we believe that in that era a single mother was shunned and ignored by society. We also are not generally aware that men were court ordered to pay child support just as they are today. The story in the diary is short and to the point, as is the movie. However, the web site can extrapolate from the events of the three and come to some historically significant conclusions.
"The three Ballard family marriages in 1792 illustrate surprising differences between then and now. They also show how courtship and marriage were conducted under community control.
"The first marriage, between Martha Ballard's son Jonathan and Sally Pierce, tells us how and to what extent the community regulated premarital pregnancy. Sally had worked for Martha and became pregnant with Jonathan Ballard's child while unmarried ( Midwife's Tale http://www.dohistory.org/diary/themes/purrinton/index.html).
"Sally confessed to fornication and named Jonathan…