DURHAM, N.H. — When historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich published her book, “A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary 1785-1812,” she illuminated history like never before.
Now this 200-year-old tale will reach a national public television audience when the film “A Midwife’s Tale” is aired at 9 tonight as part of “The American Experience” series.
Real-life midwife Molly Connelly of Gilford served as a consultant on the film. Through eight years of painstaking reading, research and detective work, the former University of New Hampshire professor unraveled the massive, cryptic diary kept by Hallowell, Maine, midwife Martha Ballard during those 27 years.
Where other historians had browsed, nodded and moved on, Ulrich ruminated and uncovered details. She found that Ballard attended nearly 1,000 births, testified in a trial concerning the rape of a local reverend’s wife, watched half a community and two of her daughters die of scarlet fever, witnessed the grim realities of domestic violence and debtors prison, and all the while struggled to keep a home and a family thriving.
The resulting story not only captured the resilient character of a remarkable healer and midwife, but also revealed a portion of history that almost slipped through the cracks.
“A Midwife’s Tale” was an accurate and captivating tale of frontier Maine, laden with day-to-day details of a community entrenched in its own establishment, and it was a tale rich with unprecedented accounts of what it was like to be a woman back then. Since fewer than half of the female population was literate in the late 18th century and scant few kept diaries, Ballard’s journals provided a new perspective on U.S. history.
Ulrich was recognized as a hero for her efforts and awarded the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for History. In 1993, Massachusetts documentary maker Laurie Kahn-Leavitt of Blueberry Hill Productions approached her about putting “A Midwife’s Tale” to film.
Shortly after Ulrich agreed to the film, Kahn-Leavitt secured a $900,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant and wrote a screenplay adaptation. Richard P. Rogers came on board to direct. And actress Kaiulani Sewall Lee, a descendant of the Sewall family of Maine, whom Ballard writes of in her diaries, was hired to play Martha.
Kahn-Leavitt structured the film to tell two stories: Ballard’s as it exists in the book and Ulrich’s as she pieces together the diaries. Ballard’s diary is the primary one. Ulrich’s research is its glue.
Throughout the making of “A Midwife’s Tale,” a board of advisers was regularly consulted and a computer database was assembled of several thousand images from the 18th century. Actors and actresses were trained to understand the lives of their characters. Real newborns appeared in the birthing scenes.
To recreate 18th-century Hallowell, a variety of historical locations were researched. Filming actually was done in Lincoln, Mass., historic Richmond at Staten Island, N.Y., and New Brunswick.
“In making `A Midwife’s Tale,’ we broke all of the rules of low-budget independent filmmaking,” said Laurie Kahn-Leavitt. “The usual rule of thumb is to set your film in the present tense, near to where you live, tightly limiting the time span. … We took on a 27-year time span and set up our drama in four seasons, 200 years ago on America’s northern frontier.”
“A Midwife’s Tale” premiered last March on select big screens in Augusta, Maine. It has since been shown at The Music Hall in Portsmouth and in Cambridge, Mass., near Harvard where Ulrich now teaches.
Here in New Hampshire, particularly at New Hampshire Public Television in Durham, there’s plenty of cause to feel territorial about the film. Local ties to “A Midwife’s Tale” abound. It is, after all, a New England-based story, written in Durham when Ulrich was a professor at the local university.
The film actually airs on NHPTV Channel 11 Saturday, Jan. 24, and again on Jan. 29, according to an exemption clause that allows NHPTV to delay airing to give viewers other possible times to view the 90-minute show.
After “A Midwife’s Tale,” Channel 11 will air an exclusive half-hour interview by journalist Barbara Coles. Titled “Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in Conversation,” it explores the process of researching and writing the book.
There’s no lack of excitement at the station.
“I’m thrilled. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is my idol,” said Mona Hillary, program continuity and viewer services coordinator at Channel 11. “It’s just wonderful how she took this information that so many historians had already looked over and came up with such a rich expression of what this time period was really like.”
While Hillary hasn’t seen the movie, she has read and heard reports about the filmmakers’ commitment to staying true to the book and the era.
“What’s also very special is that this is something that spotlights New Hampshire, because it was written by a woman who was at UNH at the time,” said Dot Meneghin in media relations at Channel 11. “For us, this is a particularly special event because our mission is to foster pride in New Hampshire and to spotlight its people.”
The Lakes Region and the town of Gilford also have some ties to “A Midwife’s Tale,” as the home of midwife Molly Connelly, who served as a consultant and trained the actresses for birth scenes for the movie. Connelly had studied with Ulrich at UNH and spoke about midwifery in Ulrich’s women’s studies classes.
Kahn-Leavitt met Connelly through Ulrich, which prompted the call to her as a qualified adviser. Connelly herself has delivered more than 500 babies in the past 20 years, and delivered nine of her own 12 babies at home alone, without the help of a midwife. She was called up to New Brunswick as an adviser and to play the midwife as they “tested out” the movie.