"I don't think it will change my life," said Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the 1991 Pulitzer Prize winner in history, during a telephone conversation from her home in Durham, N.H. Even though she is a New Englander now, her roots are in Utah and Idaho.
"Maybe that's naive. In a university town you're just another one of the faculty. I probably will continue to do what I've done. I've been joking that it would be great if it gave me a parking place and a bigger office."The prize was a complete surprise to her. Ulrich was just getting settled back into everyday life after winning the Bancroft Prize, the top award that is given every year in the field of history, and expected nothing more.
"It totally knocked me off my chair."
To the question why her book, "A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812," would be so singled out, she has two possible answers: "One, the document itself, meaning the diary, is pretty remarkable. Because I had the material, I could tell a story that had not been told before. I could paint a full portrait of midwifery in context of all these other things, meaning the dailyness of life.
"The other thing is that with scholars it was important the way I constructed the book - as a kind of detective story. I exposed the document for (readers) and let them see what was there and what I had to work with. A lot of people really enjoy that. They like to know how history gets discovered."
Martha Ballard was a housewife, midwife and healer in the Kennebec River towns of Hallowell and Augusta, Maine, who delivered 814 babies in 27 years. But she also revealed in her diary all of the ordinary aspects of life in pre-industrial America that historians just didn't know before - about marriage, children, men's and women's work, religion, growing old, etc.
Did her own upbringing as a Mormon woman have any connection to the book?
"There is a lot of me in the book. I come from a culture that sees the world religiously and values domestic life and hard work and those values. Growing up as I did in Sugar City, Idaho, gave me a sense of pioneering. I developed a strong reverence for the past. There was a lot of respect for older people in my litle town. But on the other hand, people say to me, `Thank you for teaching me about my grandmother from downeast Maine in the 1930s.' So I'm not sure."
Ulrich sees another connection to Mormonism. "Patti Sessions started her career as midwife in Maine four years after Martha Ballard died. I read and studied Susan Sessions' work on Patti Sessions. I suppose if you wanted to trace Martha Ballard's heritage you would go West as New England emptied out."
Patti Sessions was born in 1795, grew up in Maine, became a midwife, and was converted to Mormonism in 1834, moved to Kirtland, Ohio, in 1837, and took part in the Mormon migration West to Utah in 1846. Her legendary 3,977 deliveries make her worthy of the title, "Mother of Mormon Midwifery."
Laurel Ulrich never planned or expected such an illustrious academic career. She graduated from Sugar-Salem High School in 1956 in a class that included 56 students.
"I always had an adventurous spirit and I thought it would be neat to see the world. Then I got accepted with a scholarship to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and I just panicked. I thought `I can't go that far away from home!' My parents had gone to the University of Utah and I had to wire back immediately my acceptance to George Washington and so I just wired back a rejection saying, `Going to University of Utah.' And that's how the decision was made."
"It was common then for Mormon families to send their kids to the U." She remembers those U. of U. years as golden days as she studied English under outstanding scholars such as Jack Adamson and Bill Mulder.
By the time she graduated in 1960 she was married to Gael Ulrich, who took her to Boston so he could study engineering at M.I.T. While raising her five children, she worked on her own academic interests in the cracks, getting an M.A. in English from Simmons College in 1971 - a one-year program that took her five years. There was a lot of intellectual stimulation in Boston, and she wrote many articles about Mormon women and a classic tourist guidebook called "A Beginner's Boston."
When Gael accepted a position at the University of New Hampshire, she was thrust into a new environment, forcing her to re-evaluate. Because of the exceptionally good history faculty there, she changed her interest to history and received her Ph.D. in 1980 at the age of 42.Her doctoral dissertation, "Good Wives" about 17th- and 18th-century New England women was published by Knopf and opened the way for a permanent position at New Hampshire. Now Ulrich, 53 - who has led a full domestic life as wife and mother - has won a Pulitzer Prize for her second book, which will come out in paperback next month.
The honor is well deserved, not only because of her careful research, but because she is dedicated to writing interesting history. Ever since her love of writing germinated in the third grade, she has managed to entertain as well as instruct.
"It's very exciting to create a book. What I love about history is that the fact matters and yet the story also matters. Writing is what I do."