Great historical fiction novels can be magic, transporting you back to times long past when the world was wildly different yet still recognizable. Ariel Lawhon's latest novel, The Frozen River, is a terrific example of hard-hitting historical fiction. Not only do we learn about an unsung early American heroine, but we also see current-day themes and struggles reflected through a historical lens. For this reason, The Frozen River earned a permanent spot on my list of the Best Books Published in 2023! If you're a mother/woman/healthcare provider, you'll most certainly love this book, but there's something here for every historical fiction lover.
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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.
All year I eagerly awaited Fall because of this book. Lawhon's Code Name Helene, is my favorite WWII historical fiction, so needless to say, I had HIGH hopes for her new book. Having not read all of her backlist I didn’t know what to expect, but I hoped her highly engaging storytelling would capture my attention and keep me engaged.
Thankfully I was not disappointed! The Frozen River is such a terrific book from start to finish. The first chapter sucked me in immediately, and Lawhon’s masterful first-person narrative kept me turning pages/listening compulsively for the entire book. The early settler-style setting added a degree of lawlessness that made the story's events so much more impactful. And as Martha stood up for wrongs against the local women she supported you can’t help but cheer for her, knowing that she risked everything to right wrongs.
One of the many reasons Martha is such a special character: her relationship with her family. As a mother and wife, she has everything to lose by standing up for others. Yet she still does what she believes is right and just, relying on the support of her loving husband throughout the story. The marriage between these two characters is something to admire. I really loved the older female MC representation, and I think my over-40 friends will especially appreciate reading about aching knees and adult children. As for the mystery/suspense aspects of the story, I can only say that Lawhon delivers! I was hanging on to her every word of the whole book.
This book was SO good, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys early American historical fiction. The strong female main character and middle-aged representation go a long way to make The Frozen River an incredible book, and Lawhon's storytelling shines bright. There's a reason this one ended up on my Best Books Published in 2023 list!