BOOK CLUB: The Frozen River

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The Frozen River by American author Ariel Lawhon is a fascinating and moving historical crime fiction about an extraordinary woman. The fact that Martha Ballard was a real person makes it even more special.

Hallowell Maine, 1789 Martha, known as Mrs. Ballard to the community, had been the town’s midwife and healer for over a decade.  She never let families down and would always make her way to them when there was a cry for help.  

Although she had never received formal medical training, Martha harvested herbs to treat anything from a cough to an aching limb and kept a diary of all the happenings she encountered.

Townsman, James Burgess is found dead in the frozen Kennebec River. He is known as one of two men who allegedly assaulted a couple of local women, including Rebecca Foster, the pastor’s wife. Martha is called to examine the body as his death looks suspicious. While it appears he was hung, there is no evidence of a rope.  

Martha knew that she would be able to find the answers in her diary as she had accounted for the attack when Mrs Foster asked for her help. She suspects both cases are linked, and as the inquest begins, there is more than meets the eye. Will the truth be revealed as the mystery unfolds?

The characters are well-fleshed-out and have layers to their personalities that make them feel dynamic and compelling. There is a clear definition between the protagonist and supporting characters as the plot thickens with intensity and excitement. The historical aspect of the book gives a glimpse into the life of times gone by; an excellent job was done to present the most authentic account of life in those times.

The author had a fantastic character to work with in Martha, and she did an amazing job of bringing her to life for readers. She beautifully highlighted her successes and triumphs, as well as her disappointments. Martha was forthright, headstrong, and full of a desire to help others. 

Without her careful accounting of thousands of diary entries over nearly three decades there would be little record of the lives and events in Maine during that time.

Ariel Lawhon has crafted a superbly involved, in-depth, and immersive work of historical fiction.

The plot is full of action, adventure, mystery, murder, and miracles. A compelling narrative is woven into the story with settings that make readers feel as if they have simply slipped through the pages and into the scenes.  It’s clear that a huge amount of detailed research has gone into creating the atmosphere, setting, and feel of the dialogue in this well-penned piece of work.

I love the book cover; it is creepy yet beautiful. It has a ghostly atmosphere, while the figure amongst the scenery reminds us of a familiar comforting place.

This is one of those human-interest stories that feel universal and demand your attention no matter what type of reader you are, I highly recommend it.

If you like The Frozen River, we recommend Twenty Years Later:

A selection of our Beauty and Lace Club members are reading The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon. You can read their comments below, or add your own review.

6 thoughts on “BOOK CLUB: The Frozen River

  1. Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon ( Simon & Schuster) is inspired by the true story and diaries of healer and midwife Martha Ballard who lived in the state of Maine, in colonial America during the 18th century. Part historical novel and part mystery, this is a fascinating and gripping read.

    At the centre of the story is a tragic tale of murder and rape. Drawn in as an ‘expert witness’ to these crimes is Martha – a frontier woman whose medical know-how, intelligence and fortitude against the chauvinism, evil and corruption displayed by powerful townsmen, is quite remarkable.

    You cannot help but like Martha. She cares about everyone and particularly does her best to help women, in a time when women were often defenseless and scorned for crimes committed against them. Martha has a real sense of justice and fair play and refuses to back down even when the law and the narrow minded attitudes that prevailed, were often against her.

    This is a very well told story about an inspiring real-life heroine and it provides an interesting glimpse into what life was like in colonial America. Highly recommended.

  2. The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon is an engaging historical murder mystery set in Maine USA 1789.
    Ariel’s story telling style makes it easy to relate to Martha, her husband and their children.
    Ariel has based the story around key historical events and on the diary of midwife Martha Ballard which has been kept in the family and is now in a museum.
    Martha is a wonderful pioneer and pillar of her community. She is a healer and midwife recording her experiences with women and events in the community.
    A body has been found trapped in the ice in the river. The circumstances of the murder affect Martha’s family and the community in a time when no fair legal system exists.
    It is an excellent read with murder, mystery, adventure, courage, love and family.
    Thankyou for the opportunity to read this memorable story.

  3. I loved Ariel Lawhon’s ‘Code Name Helene’ and ‘I was Anastasia’ so was so excited to read this new title ‘Frozen River’. I was not disappointed. The author has a wonderful ability to bring a person to life through detailed research and incredibly engaging writing.

    The story of ‘Frozen River’ is inspired by Martha Ballard, an 18th-century midwife and healer from Maine, USA. Martha keeps a diary and when a townsman James Burgess is found drowned in the frozen river she knows she can find the answers to his death through her diary entries. James had been connected to an assault on women in the town and Martha is sure the two events are linked.
    Frozen River is an historical mystery with plenty of suspense.

    A must read is the authors note at the end of the book as it provides real insight into the book and the detailed research the author undertook.

  4. The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon was a fabulous read. Set in the 1700s it is focused on the life of midwife Martha, aka Mrs Ballard who never lost a mother birthing her baby, which I think is remarkable for the era.

    Knowing that this novel is based on the real Martha Ballard’s life, although the author goes to lengths to ensure readers know it is a work of fiction, not a biography, is fascinating. Only through the discovery and preservation of the real Martha’s diary, which she religiously wrote in every day, was this book able to eventuate and Ariel Lawhon has definitely brought it to life, biography or not.

    This is a historical murder mystery, love story and insight into the lives, gender roles and social norms of the times all rolled into one. The characters were skillfully and realistically developed and I was immersed in the small town of Hallowell, Maine such were the vivid descriptions and characterization. Nothing was expected with numerous backstories unfolding and there were many twists and turns which had me captivated from the start.

    One of the trademarks of Ariel Lawhon books is the Author’s Note at the end, when she “unpacks” the novel, offers explanations and revelations about how the story came to be and what aspects are and are not historically accurate. This in itself was so interesting to read and only added, in my view, further depth to the novel.

    Highly recommended and I am looking forward to reading more from this author. Thank you Beauty and Lace and Simon & Schuster for the opportunity to read The Frozen River.

  5. When I fist received this book, I thought, wow, that is a lot of reading! I had only read the first few pages, and I was hooked,
    The story and the characters certainly draw you in, and it is so well written and immersive, it is like reading a movie script.
    Based on real life Martha Ballard, although embellished to make it fiction, it brings to life living in the late 1700’s.
    A body found frozen in the river, sees Martha not only a a midwife and ‘healer’ of her time, but also, coroner, detective, wife and mother. She is also a strong voice for women, and has documentd in her diary, every day, the goings on in her town of Hallowell.
    Martha uses her diary to try and figure out what happened to the frozen man, by going back over her daily entries.
    This makes for many twists and turns in the story, all of them keeping you captivated over every page.
    I thoroughly enjoyed everything about this book, including the very informative Authors Note at the end. This explained in detail how the story came about and on it’s own is an intriguing read.
    Thank you Beauty and Lace and Simon & Schuster for the opportunity to read The Frozen River, and Ariel Lawhon for a fascinating and in depth read. I highly recommend it to all.

  6. This is an author new to me, but I had heard good things about her previous book ‘Code Name Helene’, based on the life of Nancy Wake (which I now must read). This book is set in Maine, 1789, and features a mystery based on the true life story of midwife Martha Ballard (her diaries still exist). I do love fictionalised history, it brings the past alive, and may take licence a little with the facts, but it gives you a wonderful sense of the times and situations of people that actually lived. The mystery is centred around a rape, always such a shockingly dreadful crime, and then a murder – a man is found dead, caught in the ice of the frozen river. In the process of unpacking the stories around these two events, more crimes are discovered. Martha was a fabulous heroine. She was brave, wise, and an amazing midwife, unlike the new doctor in town who thought he knew everything, but didn’t… But as the mysteries unfold there is also a sense of unease and menace surrounding the town, and Martha’s family. People know things but they aren’t talking; the balance of power is corrupted. But amidst all this there is tender love and good friendship. It was truly a gripping story to read, and the end was very unexpected!

    Many thanks to Beauty & Lace and Simon & Schuster Australia for the review copy.

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