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The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon
Historical fiction

The Frozen River

by Ariel Lawhon

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Quick take

A Maine midwife proves herself a tenacious advocate for justice when a local man with a few secrets is put on trial.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Real-life-characters

    Real-life characters

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_GraphicViolence

    Graphic violence

  • Illustrated icon, Icons_Serious

    Serious

Synopsis

Maine, 1789: When the Kennebec River freezes, entombing a man in the ice, Martha Ballard is summoned to examine the body and determine cause of death. As a midwife and healer, she is privy to much of what goes on behind closed doors in Hallowell. Her diary is a record of every birth and death, crime and debacle that unfolds in the close-knit community. Months earlier, Martha documented the details of an alleged rape committed by two of the town’s most respected gentlemen—one of whom has now been found dead in the ice. But when a local physician undermines her conclusion, declaring the death to be an accident, Martha is forced to investigate the shocking murder on her own.

Over the course of one winter, as the trial nears, and whispers and prejudices mount, Martha doggedly pursues the truth. Her diary soon lands at the center of the scandal, implicating those she loves, and compelling Martha to decide where her own loyalties lie.

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Content warning

This book contains mentions of deaths of children and scenes that depict sexual assault.

Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of The Frozen River.
The Frozen River

WHAT’S PAST IS PROLOGUE

The body floats downstream. But it is late November, and the Kennebec River is starting to freeze, large chunks of ice swirling and tumbling through the water, collecting in mounds while clear, cold fingers of ice stretch out from either bank, reaching into the current, grabbing hold of all that passes by. Already weighted down by soaked clothing and heavy leather boots, the dead man bobs in the ebbing current, unseeing eyes staring at the waning crescent moon.

It is a miserable night with bitter wind and numbing frost, and the slower the river moves, the quicker it freezes, trapping him in its sluggish grip, as folds of his homespun linen shirt are thrown out like petals of a wilted brown tulip. Just an hour ago his hair was combed and pulled back, tied with a strip of lace. He’d taken the lace, of course, and it is possible—fate is such a fragile thing, after all—that he might still be alive if not for that choice. But it was insult on top of injury. Wars have been fought over less.

The dead man was in a hurry to leave this place, was in too much trouble already, and had he taken more care, been patient, he would have heard his assailants in the forest. Heard. Hidden. Held his breath. And waited for them to pass. But the dead man was reckless and impatient. Panting. He’d left tracks in the snow and was not hard to find. His hair came loose in the struggle, the bit of lace reclaimed and shoved in a pocket, and now that hair, brown as a muddy riverbank, is a tangled mess, part of it plastered to his forehead, part in his mouth, pulled there during a last startled gasp before he was thrown into the river.

His tangled, broken body is dragged along by the current for another quarter of a mile before the ice congeals and grinds to a halt with a tired moan, trapping him fifteen feet from the shore, face an inch below the surface, lips parted, eyes still widened in surprise.

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Why I love it

Historical fiction can be a powerful tool for reclamation. And I’m especially riveted by stories that uplift overlooked women of distinction. In The Frozen River, Ariel Lawhon’s storytelling prowess brings to life a lost heroine, offering a powerful tribute to women who assert themselves in an inhospitable world.

When a man is found entombed in the frozen Kennebec River of Hallowell, Maine, in the year 1789, healer and midwife Martha Ballard is summoned to examine the body. From that moment, in the back room of the local pub, she is thrust into the middle of a trial and scandal that will change American history. Her daily and detailed diary is brought as evidence and just might implicate those she loves. Still, she pursues truth and justice in a world where women aren’t valued, where they are meant to be seen and not heard.

Complex and immersive, this lost-to-time true murder mystery unfolds over one long Maine winter as Martha’s husband, children, town, and life are reshaped forever. With sentences that take the breath away, Lawhon tackles women’s roles, motherhood, writing, and love.

I finished the last page with a resolve to share this novel with everyone who will listen. One of our finest historical novelists writing today, Lawhon has penned a breathtaking and page-turning murder mystery layered with deep truths. Martha Ballard was a heroine in her day, and now thanks to Lawhon, she is a heroine for all of us.

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Member ratings (2,897)

  • Jeff S.

    Columbus, WI

     The mix of history and fiction makes a compelling read – this is a book that is hard to set down. The characters and their personalities unfold in a way that is easy to become attached to as a reader

  • Trisha T.

    Auburn, WA

    Definitely a favorite of 2024 so far. A touching story of midwifery and women helping women in the 1700’s, based on a real woman and her journals. Amazing story with fascinating characters and history

  • Lisa B.

    Cuyahoga Falls, OH

    Wow this book! I have been in a book slump but this book made me want to read it 24/7. I haven’t wanted to read like this in a long time! I felt like I was with Martha and living in the 1700s. So good

  • Jo G.

    Rio Oso, CA

    It has been a while since a book has had such an impact. This book left me breathless, not just because I loved the story but because it felt important. Read the author’s note, it adds to the story.

  • Shari G.

    Bakersfield , CA

    I wish this book had been nominated for book of the year. It was excellent and by far my favorite read of the year 2023. Love the historical fiction of a real person who so little information is known

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