Spotlight on “The Frozen River” by Ariel Lawhon

by LitStack Editor

A woman ahead of her time and the impact she makes on a world that is not ready for her.

The Frozen River and author Ariel Lawhon

About The Frozen River

The Frozen River is a gorgeous historical fiction combining the investigative suspense of Louise Penny and the compelling historical backdrop of Outlander. 

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 defied the legal system and wrote herself into American history.

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.

Clever, layered, and subversive, Ariel Lawhon’s newest offering introduces an unsung heroine who refused to accept anything less than justice at a time when women were considered best seen and not heard. The Frozen River is a thrilling, tense, and tender story about a remarkable woman who left an unparalleled legacy yet remains nearly forgotten to this day.

Editorial Reviews for The Frozen River

Publishers Weekly

Lawhon (Code Name Hélène) draws from the diary of an 18th-century midwife for the stirring story of one woman’s quest for justice. In 1789 Maine, 54-year-old midwife Martha Ballard is asked to help determine the cause of death for Joshua Burgess, an accused rapist whose body was found frozen in the river. Martha is convinced that Burgess was beaten and hanged before he was thrown into the water. Several months earlier, she treated a woman named Rebecca Foster for injuries sustained from rape, and Rebecca told her the assailants were Burgess and Joseph North, a judge. 

After a court determines there’s not enough evidence against North for a rape charge, despite Martha’s testimony about Rebecca’s injuries, a trial is arranged on different charges, but North disappears. Martha attempts to prove Burgess was murdered, hoping to bring scrutiny to North as a suspect in the killing, whose motive may have been to keep Burgess from testifying against him about the rape. 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. 

Kirkus Reviews

In The Frozen River, when a man accused of rape turns up dead, an Early American town seeks justice amid rumors and controversy.

Lawhon’s fifth work of historical fiction is inspired by the true story and diaries of midwife Martha Ballard of Hallowell, Maine, a character she brings to life brilliantly here. As Martha tells her patient in an opening chapter set in 1789, “You need not fear….In all my years attending women in childbirth, I have never lost a mother.” This track record grows in numerous compelling scenes of labor and delivery, particularly one in which Martha has to clean up after the mistakes of a pompous doctor educated at Harvard, one of her nemeses in a town that roils with gossip and disrespect for women’s abilities. 

Supposedly, the only time a midwife can testify in court is regarding paternity when a woman gives birth out of wedlock—but Martha also takes the witness stand in the rape case against a dead man named Joshua Burgess and his living friend Col. Joseph North, whose role as judge in local court proceedings has made the victim, Rebecca Foster, reluctant to make her complaint public. Further complications are numerous: North has control over the Ballard family’s lease on their property; Rebecca is carrying the child of one of her rapists; Martha’s son was seen fighting with Joshua Burgess on the day of his death. 

Lawhon weaves all this into a richly satisfying drama that moves suspensefully between childbed, courtroom, and the banks of the Kennebec River. The undimmed romance between 40-something Martha and her husband, Ephraim, adds a racy flair to the proceedings. Knowing how rare the quality of their relationship is sharpens the intensity of Martha’s gaze as she watches the romantic lives of her grown children unfold. 

As she did with Nancy Wake in Code Name Hélène (2020), Lawhon creates a stirring portrait of a real-life heroine and, as in all her books, includes an endnote with detailed background.

A vivid, exciting page-turner from one of our most interesting authors of historical fiction.

Praise for The Frozen River

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

“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

“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

“The Frozen River is so vivid, so textured and multilayered, that I felt I’d opened a door and entered post-revolutionary America, walking beside Lawhon’s compelling characters in a time and place riven by hardship, disease, and misogyny, but also intense love and searing natural beauty. This novel was unlike anything I’d read before, and it left me awe-struck.”—Lauren Belfer, New York Times bestselling author of City of Light and Ashton Hall

About Ariel Lawhon, Author of The Frozen River

The Frozen River author Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is a critically acclaimed, New York Times bestselling author of historical fiction. Her books have been translated in numerous languages and have been Library Reads, One Book One County, Indie Next, Costco, Amazon Spotlight, and Book of the Month Club selections. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and four sons. Ariel splits her time between the grocery store and the baseball field.

You can find and follow Ariel on her website, on Facebook, Instagram, and X.

Titles by Ariel Lawhon

Other LitStack Resources

Be sure and check out other LitStack Spotlights that shine a light on books we think you should read.

As a Bookshop, Amazon affiliate, LitStack may earn a commission at no cost to you when you purchase products through our affiliate links.

Related Posts