How I Wrote The Midwife’s Revolt

My passion for American history has a long and winding trajectory. When one of my college interviewers asked what my least favorite subject was, I told him, “History.” But I wound up going to Columbia Graduate School in European History, and then became a fanatical reader of American History. The turning point as a novelist came when I read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Professor Ulrich reads almost microscopically between midwife Martha Ballard’s lifelong diary entries, which were often quite terse and enigmatic. Reading this exceptional scholarly work, I came away with two insights: First, that one could reach the ground level–the daily life of a human being from centuries ago–if one followed the clues. To me, that was thrilling. Knowing history on a daily, human level–what someone ate, how someone bathed, or had a spat with a spouse, or what she planted in the garden–felt like entering another world, as vivid as my own.

My second takeaway was that midwives, especially those in the rural communities of early America, were really up in people’s business! They served as pharmacists, shamans, doctors, and psychiatrists, and consolers. They were present at literally every major event from birth to death, with many illnesses in between. They would get to know a family intimately, possibly without the family even being fully aware of it. And so I thought: What if a midwife came to wash the body of a dead man thought to have died of smallpox, only to realize that he had been poisoned?

That was the gauntlet my imagination threw down for me, and it became the core of The Midwife’s Revolt. I recall searching around in my mind for a place to set the story, and almost at once I had the answer. I had been immersed in the letters of John and Abigail Adams, and was becoming increasingly drawn to the revolutionary time period. I wanted a reason to learn more, and so I thought, What if I made my midwife a friend of Abigail Adams?

The rest is history. And by “history,” I mean lots and lots of research, writing, and revision before I had the book I wanted.