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Erica’s Pick of the Week: The Frozen River

In July 2020, author Ariel Lawhon appeared on the library’s podcast to discuss Code Name Hélène, her novel about WWII socialite-spy Nancy Wake. She mentioned that her next project was based on the diary of a New England midwife from the late 18th century. More than three years later, The Frozen River has finally arrived. The book is a historical mystery featuring a compelling, vividly drawn woman who is both of her time and eminently relatable — and it’s well worth the wait.  

Martha Ballard is a midwife and healer in Hallowell, Maine, so when a local man is found dead in the Kennebec River in the winter of 1789, she’s asked to determine his cause of death. No one in Hallowell is particularly distraught when she declares it murder, given that the dead man was accused of raping Martha’s dear friend. But a second man is also accused of the rape: the local judge, who overrules Martha and brands her friend a liar. Martha sets out to discover the truth and see justice done, regardless of the cost. 

The real Martha Ballard delivered more than a thousand babies and never lost a single mother. She also kept a daybook chronicling her daily life, her patients, and the brutal assault at the center of the story. Like her inspiration, Lawhon’s Martha is a force to be reckoned with: intelligent, compassionate, and dedicated to her charges. Her husband of 35 years, Ephraim, is a source of joy and strength; their relationship is the beating heart of the book. Most of all, Martha has a deeply rooted sense of justice that she cannot abandon.  

Lawson renders Martha’s world with a clear eye for the gossip, power struggles, and interconnectedness of a rural community. She provides a window into the details of 1790s life, from lumber mills and parties to candle making and the justice system. It’s fascinating to see what has changed… and even more so to see what hasn’t.   

The mystery itself is multilayered and well-paced, full of likely suspects and long-held secrets. While the killer is ultimately revealed, Lawhon asks more of her readers: what is justice? Who deserves it? What happens when it is denied? The answers, and the book’s climax, will have book clubs debating long into the night.  

The Frozen River is a perfect fit for readers who enjoy immersive, thought-proving historical fiction about unconventional women.  

photo courtesy of author website

Categories: Books and More

Tags: Books and More

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