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The Frozen River - A Midwife's Saga with Murder Now by Ariel Lawhon

Digital Reads Reviews is a blog-haven for book posts and reviews. This is a review of a historical fiction by Ariel Lawhon, The Frozen River.
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Table of Contents


The Frozen River

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.

Publication Date: December 2023

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My Review

What was The Frozen River all about?

The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon was a true story about a midwife Martha Ballard in the 1700s fictionalized by the author. 

With multiple births in her life journey along with a murder and a rape, as documented in her journal, Martha was the strongest character I had ever read about. 

The story managed to capture the essence of this midwife’s life, never letting my interest waver in her with its finest writing evoking a plethora of emotions. 

A standalone, I never knew I would enjoy the book so much when I first picked it up. And now I almost could not seem to let it go. I have asked my friend to get me a hardbound copy of this book. What could I say more here? I loved this book completely. 

The Hook

Trigger Warnings: The rape scenes in the court testimony had to be given by the survivor in detail which might be triggering. 

The writing and words chosen to narrate this tale were the most compelling hooks that kept me into this book. 

Most real stories that were fictionalized had a falseness to it. But here I was glad to note, this book surpassed all my expectations and gave me Martha’s life in the truest form. 

Got a book hangover for the next few days after reading it. 

The Characters of The Frozen River

The entire book was in Martha’s voice, and it was so powerful that it almost never lost its grip over me. I loved, loved every moment I spent in this story. 

Turmoil, worry, love, kindness, perverseness, desperation, surrender, all the emotions of those tough times came together like an avalanche as I read through the pages. I loved how Martha’s eyes recognized each human that passed through her life. Her betrayal at the hands of whom she trusted hurt me the most. 

The shining light that glittered bright in the book was Martha’s sense of justice. She was a woman in the 1700s standing alone and fighting the right for freedom for women. Her frustration when she couldn’t achieve them was when I stood by her, longing what she wished for. 

This was a raw portrayal of those times, yet it had the softness of a women’s fiction. And it was her husband who stood by her when the going got tough. I never found his trust in her wavering, even when he disagreed with her. The whole story was beautiful. You had to read it to believe it. 

The Intricacies

I would say the plot line was simple yet convoluted. A midwife’s tale was supposed to be filled with the births and deaths of mother and child, yet this story went beyond that. 

I loved that the body found underneath the ice in the frozen river was written in the first few chapters. Adding to that was the subplot of the dead man being the one accused of rape made it suspenseful. 

Amidst all the times when Martha was called for delivering a child, there was a need to find the murderer and get to know the truth. Along with a burning need to know if the woman who was raped would ever find justice in those harsh times where there was no modern forensics and DNA analysis. 

The author was consistent in her writing, keeping true to the story, keeping me gripped to the subplots. The ending especially had my thriller-y heart thudding hard as Martha herself was put under great danger. This was one book that I was completely satisfied with.

The Setting and the Pace of The Frozen River

I was transported to an area in the middle of winter where the river was completely frozen where traveling across it was filled with peril. Martha’s riding on her horse to get to her patients clutching her medicine bag. Her journal where she noted all the things that happened during the day. The ink cakes and the quill that her husband bought for her. 

Her children, all 9 of them, out of which, she buried 3. The courtship of her girls. Her grownup boys who no longer run to her. The respect she garnered from the townspeople. The derision that came her way by the Harvard-educated doctor. The petty gossipy girls. The truth that Martha spoke. Every single thing added to the worldbuilding and ensnared me completely. 

Steady pace with things happening every few pages made me read the book in a couple of days. I didn’t want to stop reading, but life happened in those days, and I was pretty sick due to viral infection. 

The style of writing - The Prose

Absolutely brilliant. The style resonated with me and felt genuine as if Martha herself was speaking to me and telling me all the things she went through during those harsh winters when life should have come to a stand still, but didn’t for her. 

I am not a connoisseur of historical fiction nor do I read them frequently, but if a book were written like this, I would be consuming them almost constantly. There was never a moment where I wanted to put a book down. In fact, the responsibilities of life felt more like a chore while reading the book. I never wanted to stop reading until I got to the end. The prose was that powerful. 

How The Frozen River made me feel

I was completely speechless as I could not believe I enjoyed a historical fiction so much. I just couldn’t stop reading this book from start to end. Every line in the prose kept my focus on it constantly. Martha was such a strong character that I found myself immersing in her life almost constantly. 

And to read in the afterwords, that this was a true story fictionalized by the author stunned me. There actually was a diary of the midwife kept in the library in US, kept for public perusal. To think, the life that Martha might have led in those harsh times and to pass it on to generations was a feat all of its own. 

Paperback copy of The frozen river on bed with pink throw, candle, flowers and laptop - an instagram post

Do I recommend The Frozen River?

This was my top most read of 2023 for a few reasons

Finest, authentic writing

A strong character 

Murder mystery with hints of suspense 

One of the best historical fictions ever written

From the first line, I found myself diving into her life and never wanting to come out. So, I would always recommend this book and this author. You just have to read it. 

If you’ve loved the review, buy me a cuppa to perk me up to read more books.

I got the paperback version of the book from my friend’s library, and this is my journey down its pages, straight from the heart. STRICTLY HONEST and UNBIASED.

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One Response

  1. Nice review! I jumped on a library app and sure enough, both digital and audiobooks, both on hold with people (as many as six on digital) waiting. Sounds like a winner, Shalini. Really like the looks of your blog–very attractive–of course my favorite colors.

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