Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon

The Frozen River
by Ariel Lawhon
448 pages; 15 hours
Read by Jane Oppenheimer
Published December 2023 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 

Publisher's Summary: 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. 

My Thoughts: 
This is my fourth novel by Lawhon, so clearly I'm a fan. Why? Because Lawhon always finds obscure real women who lived in interesting time to craft her novels around; I always learn something about an historical period, as seen through the lens of a woman's life. This novel is no exception. 

The real Martha Ballard lived from February 1735 through June 1812, married Ephraim Ballard in 1754, and had nine children, losing three of them to diphtheria. The family lived in Kennebec Valley, Maine where Martha worked as a midwife and healer and frequently testified in court. All of that would have been lost to time but for the fact that, at age 50, she began keeping a daily diary.

Lawhon took that and ran with it, pulling in many of the facts of Martha's life and the realities of the time and place, then filling that in with the details that Martha left out and a storyline that ties the late 18th century with the present day. 

What I Liked: 
  • Martha. Lawhon took what was known about the woman and created a warm, strong, fierce woman who loves her husband, is devoted to her children even as she sees their flaws, and battles men to provide the care the women in the area need and to see that justice is done. 
  • The way Lawhon paints such a clear picture of the setting of the novel. If I were making a movie adaptation of this book, it would be easy to create the set as it is so clear to me. 
  • The way Lawhon uses the story to also look at live for women in 2024. While women have absolutely come a long, long way since Martha lived, we still have a very long way to go. Were this to be set in present time, Rebecca would still struggle to be believed when she charges rape against the two men, Martha would still struggle, as a midwife, to be respected for the work she does. 
What Didn't Work As Well For Me: 
  • While I appreciate that Lawhon chose a believable court outcome, I wasn't thrilled with the way she saw justice (of a sort) served. It just all seemed a little too theatrical for me. 
  • I occasionally felt like Lawhon was being a little repetitive. For example, I didn't need to be told/shown so many times how hot for each other Martha and Ephraim still were after so many years or marriage. 
Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Would I recommend the audiobook version. For sure? Would it make a good book club selection? Definitely. 

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