Saturday, November 25, 2023

Experience a courageous woman's life in early Maine with Ariel Lawhon's The Frozen River

Spanning the winter of 1789–90 in Hallowell, Maine, from the freezing of the Kennebec River to its late thaw, Lawhon’s outstanding sixth novel is based on the actual life of frontier midwife Martha Ballard, who recorded daily diary entries about her household and career.

Called to examine the body of Joshua Burgess after it was retrieved from icy waters, Martha recognizes the telltale signs of hanging. Burgess and another man, a local judge, had been accused of raping a young pastor’s wife four months earlier, and Martha believes her account unquestioningly. She also guesses the two crimes are connected.

A sage, strong presence at 54, Martha is an extraordinary character. Devoted to her patients and her six surviving children, mostly young adults with complicated love lives, she battles subjugation by a Harvard-educated doctor who dares to think her incapable. 

Although this isn’t a traditional detective story, Martha’s narrative will capture historical mystery fans’ attention with its dramatic courtroom scenes and emphasis on justice, particularly for women. Flashbacks to Martha’s past add context and generate additional suspense.

Martha’s enduring romance with her supportive husband, Ephraim, is beautifully evoked, and details about the lives of the townspeople make the post-American Revolutionary atmosphere feel fully lived-in. Lawhon’s first-rate tale should entrance readers passionate about early America and women’s history.

The Frozen River will be published on December 5th by Doubleday in the US and Canada. I wrote this review originally for Booklist.

Some other notes:

- Martha Ballard is also the subject of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction history book, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (1990). 

- The sexual assault of the young pastor's wife, Rebecca Foster, is based in history, and the real Martha recorded details about it in her diary.  I won't say more so as not to give spoilers about the novel's plot.

- Martha and I are about the same age, and it's nice to see an older heroine in historical fiction for a change!

- I've previously read and reviewed two of the author's previous novels, Code Name Hélène (2020) and I Was Anastasia (2018). I loved Code Name Hélène and think this latest book is even better.


  1. Anonymous1:38 PM

    Hmm, more pre-1800 American historical fiction! And given that 2025 is 250th anniv of beginning of American Revolution, I'm assuming that there will be a bumper crop.

    Sarah Librarian

    1. It would be great if there were more with the anniversary. I'm seeing this book everywhere! It's the latest GMA Book Club pick (excellent choice).