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Looking for a Smart, Mature Heroine? Read the Novel, Frozen River

Historical fiction by Ariel Lawhon

A deserted frozen river

Newly released, The Frozen River

It's rare for me to read a book as soon as it's released. Because my To-Be-Read list is so long, I often start from the top (the books I've had on there the longest,) and work my way down, reading books several years after their publication. But somehow, I found The Frozen River, a historical fiction by Ariel Lawhon published in December 2023, just a month after it came out.

So glad I did!

Ariel Lawhon's novel, The Frozen River, checked off many of my "I'm-gonna-love-this-book" boxes. First, it illuminates a specific period of American History, in this case, the late 1700's of Maine.

Second, The Frozen River recreates the story of Martha Ballard, a real-life American midwife, a woman who delivered over eight hundred babies in twenty-seven years without losing a single mother. We know this to be true because Martha Ballard was one of the rare American women who knew how to read and write. She diligently recorded her daily activities in a journal, including the treatment of her patients. (In 1991 during my "diary and journal" intensive study phase, I owned and read the Pulitzer Prize-winning History Book, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812.) What a delight to see how two different authors, in two very different books, took the same character and crafted compelling reads!

Thirdly, the heroine of The Frozen River is not a dewy-faced young girl, but a principled, mature woman with grown children. Best yet, she's in a loving marriage with Ephraim, a man who taught her how to read and write. ("Oh, be still my heart!" My writer's soul leaped with joy when I learned that Ephraim frequently gifted his wife with paper and ink to enable her lifetime habit of journaling.)

Throw into this mix the murder of a prominent man found frozen in the river, a midwife's record of a rape perpetrated by the dead man, and an inside look at a trial in the court system in early America, and you've got a dynamite historical novel.

Power Struggles Abound

The Frozen River is a compelling story, layered with tensions and power struggles.

Martha is atypical because she can read and write, thanks to her husband's tutelage early in their marriage. She, unlike many of the women in the community, has acquired some status due to her decades of work delivering babies and treating minor illnesses. Martha Ballard is often called into the courts to testify about the paternity of babies or to give details about victims.

It is Martha who is called to examine the frozen body when it is hauled from the river, and she determines that the death was not accidental. It was a murder.

But Martha is an un-schooled woman, a very skilled midwife with decades of experience and knowledge. A power struggle ensues when a young, arrogant, Harvard-educated doctor arrives in town declaring that Martha's pronouncement was wrong, belittling her skills, and luring customers away from her.

There are tensions between the monied class and the working class; between the church and the pastor; and between the politically powerful versus the poor, but honest farmers.

Ariel Lahon skillfully weaves multiple conflicts into the daily lives of the townspeople of 18th Century Maine, painting a realistic picture of their lives - and making us feel that their lives are not so different from ours.

Don't miss this fascinating read!

The Frozen River was a GMA (Good Morning America) Club Choice and an NPR (National Public Radio) book of the year.

It's gotten glowing reviews:

"A thoroughly engaging, rich story with a murder mystery; secrets, gossip, and hypocrisy; a corrupt judge; a tightly knit community of villagers; women at the mercy of a patriarchal society; and the early stages of a developing justice system following the Revolutionary War. . . Turn the last page, and you will want more of this world she has created." --Historical Novel Society
“Gripping. . . Examines the ripple effects of a crime in a small community—and paints a striking portrait of a woman devoted to healing and justice. . . Lawhon draws on the real Martha Ballard’s diary to construct her narrative, which contains a number of breathless twists and a large cast of hardscrabble characters. . . Lawhon’s novel is a riveting story of small-town justice and a fitting tribute to a quiet, determined heroine.” --Shelf Awareness, starred review
“Outstanding. . . Martha is an extraordinary character. . . Lawhon's first-rate tale should entrance readers passionate about early America and women’s history.” --Booklist, starred review

Ariel Lawhon

Author of Code Name, Helene, and I Was Anastasia, and many more, Ariel Lawhon's novels have been translated into multiple languages. She is a New York Times bestselling novelist.

I will be watching her work and will be interested to read another one of her books, but it will be hard to match the mesmerizing brilliance of The Frozen River.


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