The Frozen River

Written by Ariel Lawhon
Review by Janice Ottersberg

The frozen body of a man is captive in the ice of Maine’s Kennebec River. Once he is cut free and laid out in the Hallowell village tavern, Martha Ballard, a well-respected midwife, is called upon to examine him. It is murder, she announces, and many in the village are relieved to know that Joshua Burgess is dead. He is an accused rapist – accused along with Joseph North, the village judge. But this is 1789, and it is the accuser, Rebecca Foster, who suffers the consequences.

Beginning with the winter freezing of the Kennebec River and ending with the spring thaw in 1790, The Frozen River is inspired by true events from the diaries of Martha Ballard. Lawhon has crafted 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.

Martha’s loving relationship with her husband Ephraim and children is heartwarming. A parallel narrative emerges, beginning 35 years earlier when we learn about the couple’s marriage and events that mirror some of the 1789 events. Through Martha’s eyes, we see numerous injustices faced by the women she tirelessly serves, and customs around courtship and marriage. For example, in charges of fornication, only the woman pays the fines imposed by the court, only the woman bears the shame, shunned by villagers. Also, following a marriage, many couples lived apart to allow time to set up a household, while a couple who goes directly “to housekeeping” after the wedding gives cause for gossip that a baby is on the way. Lawhon has blended many little-known historical details into this propulsive story. Turn the last page, and you will want more of this world she has created.