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Reviews of The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon

The Frozen River

A Novel

by Ariel Lawhon

The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon X
The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon
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  • Published:
    Dec 2023, 448 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Maria Katsulos
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About this Book

Book Summary

From the New York Times bestselling author of I Was Anastasia and Code Name Hélène comes a gripping historical mystery inspired by the life and diary of Martha Ballard, a renowned 18th-century midwife who investigates a shocking murder that unhinges her small community.

Maine, 1789: The Kennebec River freezes, entombing a man in the ice. Martha Ballard is summoned to examine the body and determine cause of death. As the local midwife and healer, Martha is good at keeping secrets. Her diary is a record of every birth and death, every murder and debacle that unfolds in the town of Hallowell. In that diary she also documented the details of an alleged rape that occurred four months earlier. Now, one of the men accused of that heinous attack has been found dead in the ice.

While Martha is certain she knows what happened the night of the assault, she suspects that the two crimes are linked, and that there is more to both cases than meets the eye. Over the course of one long, hard winter, as the trial nears, and whispers and prejudices mount, Martha's diary lands at the center of the scandal and threatens to tear both her family and her community apart.

In her newest offering, Ariel Lawhon brings to life a brave and compassionate unsung heroine who refused to accept anything less than justice on behalf of those no one else would protect. The Frozen River is a thrilling, tense, and tender story of a remarkable woman who had the courage to take a stand, and in the process wrote herself into American history.



November 1789

"Truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long."
—William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice


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...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. How did life in Hallowell in 1789 surprise you? Did the characters act as you expected for the historical period? What revelations were most interesting to you? How does our contemporary notion of the American dream apply to these characters?
  2. Throughout the novel, Martha is frequently called to deliver babies from women of all walks of life. Have you or anyone you know delivered a child with the assistance of a midwife? Which laboring mother did you feel most connected to?
  3. "Memory is a wicked thing that warps and twists. But paper and ink receive the truth without emotion, and they read it back without partiality." (p 39) Martha's diary is a critical component of the novel, and a key piece of evidence in Rebecca's trial. Have you ever kept a ...
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BookBrowse Review


Martha's stories of attending births and delivering babies are some of the best scenes, allowing Lawhon to demonstrate her talent for capturing dramatic events while also developing full, well-rounded characters, even when they only appear for a few pages. The Frozen River is Martha Ballard's story, developed down to the finest details in a way that A Midwife's Tale, given its purpose as a work of academic literature and its source's brevity, could not be. For fans of historical fiction, the novel is an excellent path to A Midwife's Tale and other stories, historical or fictional, set in the late 18th century...continued

Full Review Members Only (811 words)

(Reviewed by Maria Katsulos).

Media Reviews

BookPage (starred review)
Atmospheric, unique and elegantly written, The Frozen River will satisfy mystery lovers and historical fiction enthusiasts alike.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
[Lawhon's] gripping tale…feels like an authentic foray into the past and her wonderful heroine rings true. Indeed, Martha is so vividly rendered that it is hard not to become absorbed in her narrative and emotionally invested in her life... Martha's journal entries flesh out further this tough, brave and resourceful woman. Her valiant fight against the evil that men do makes for a winning blend of fact and fiction."

People Magazine, Book of the Week
Martha Ballard is not just a Maine midwife who's never lost a patient. She's also a truth speaker and a justice seeker in an era when women can't even testify in court...Once again, Lawhon works storytelling magic with a real-life heroine.

Real Simple
Part murder mystery, part historical fiction ... this novel has a gothic, wintry feel that makes it an ideal fireside read.

Shelf Awareness (starred review)
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.

The Washington Post
Fans of Outlander's Claire Fraser will enjoy Lawhon's Martha, who is brave and outspoken when it comes to protecting the innocent... impressive.

NPR, Weekend Edition
Compelling ...a most uncozy mystery that addresses the unbalanced power dynamics of men and women, rich and poor.

The New York Times Book Review
The narrator of Ariel Lawhon's The Frozen River is another stalwart heroine...detailed descriptions of the routines of village life give this narrative its intimate sense of connection — and set [the narrator] up for a pivotal confrontation.

Booklist (starred review)
Outstanding... Martha is an extraordinary character... Lawhon's first-rate tale should entrance readers passionate about early America and women's history.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A richly satisfying drama ... A vivid, exciting page-turner from one of our most interesting authors of historical fiction.

Publishers Weekly
The stirring story of one woman's quest for justice... Lawhon combines modern prose with the immediacy of her source material, making for an accessible and textured narrative. This accomplished historical powerfully speaks to centuries-old inequities that remain in the present day.

Reader Reviews


5.0 Charges pending, witness, diary… A death, a rape, a trial…. Justice??? Martha is a midwife in 1780s Hallowell , Maine. When a body is found in the icy Kennebec River, she is called to determine the cause of death. The new Harvard-...   Read More
Cathryn Conroy

Magnificent Storytelling! Page-Turning Historical Fiction Wrapped Around a Riveting Whodunit
Oh, what a novel! It just pulled me in and wouldn't let go. Before you read this book, know two important things: 1. Clear your schedule! Once you start reading, it will be really (really!) hard to stop. Yes, it's THAT good. 2. When you finish ...   Read More
Linda J

Lawhon’s Best!
This book is definitely going on my favorite of all time's list. I could not spend enough time with this engrossing story of a midwife, Martha Ballard, in 1789 who, as a vital person in her Maine community, finds herself involved in what she ...   Read More
Sandy Connell

One of the best books I've read
This is an excellent story based on of a real life midwife in the 1700s.It is historical fiction, murder mystery, and a love story wrapped into one, and a fascinating book that you can't stop reading!

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Beyond the Book

Midwifery in Colonial America

Martha Ballard, the heroine of Ariel Lawhon's The Frozen River and a real-life 18th-century midwife, left behind a diary that remains one of history's best sources on midwifery in late colonial America. In addition to this work of historical fiction, Ballard is the subject of historical monographs and of a PBS special on her life. Along with Ballard, many other midwives – named and unnamed in historical records – made their mark on the colonization of America and on the development of social norms in the new country at the end of the 18th century.

From the very beginning of European colonization of the Americas, midwifery and the safe delivery of infants was a high priority for the colonists: for example, Bridget Lee Fuller ...

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