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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon

Updated: Mar 30

I loved the 1700s wintry Maine setting and the convictions of the historical fiction novel's strong midwife character, based upon a real-life figure and her diaries.

Historical fiction? Check. Maine setting? Check. Female character in the medical profession? Check. Cold setting for a cold winter read? Check! The Frozen River ticks so many Bossy boxes, I knew this one had to zip to the top of my to-read list.

Lawhon's novel is based upon the real-life figure of Martha Ballard, an 18th-century midwife who defied tradition and convention--and, in Lawhon's historical fiction story, the law.

It's 1789, and in a rural Maine community, a local man turns up dead--frozen face up in the Kennebec River. Many who knew him aren't sad to find that he is no longer a belligerent threat in town. But he had been one of two men charged with the rape of one of Martha's best friends, and now the sole living accused man is one of the town's most respected figures--as well as its judge. The mystery of what happened to the man is a subplot that winds through the story.

I loved the details of life in the time period, as well as the unassuming women who show their true strength and conviction when it counts. Martha's position as midwife means she's privy to all sorts of secrets and truths in town. I love a story about a woman in the medical profession during an era when this was not the norm, and the details of her care for new mothers and babies was one of my favorite aspects of The Frozen River. In Lawhon's story, Martha is also a strong-willed feminist who is set on fighting for the rights of the largely powerless women in her orbit.

The bad guys in The Frozen River are purely evil, ignorant, willfully vengeful, and easy to hate. I wouldn't have minded some gray areas regarding, for example, the characters of the evil rapist judge trying to take over the town; the evil (murdered) and gleeful rapist thug; or the dangerous, ignorant, arrogant, unwittingly murderous doctor who leaves dead children in the wake of his inept attendance at their deliveries. The men's offenses are horrifying, unjust, and incredibly infuriating, as they not only do terrible things but consistently twist the knife by bragging or threatening after each abusive, condescending, cruel, destructive word they say and deed they do.

A minor note: this isn't a book that involves magical realism, but various animals are conveniently tuned into human needs and show deep, surprising connection and loyalty in key moments so as to turn the course of events in dramatic fashion.

I listened to The Frozen River as an audiobook, narrated by Jane Oppenheimer, courtesy of and Penguin Random House.

There are no Maine accents in evidence in the audiobook, nor terminology that felt Maine-specific. The bulk of the Maine setting is established by the cold and by the mentions of the Kennebec River flowing through the town of Hallowell (which is near Augusta).

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

Full disclosure: I love female-spy books (see the Greedy Reading Lists Six Great Books about Brave Female Spies and Six More Books about Brave Female Spies), but Lawhon's novel Code Name Helène wasn't for me; I didn't finish that one.

If you like the sound of this book, you might also want to check out the titles on the Greedy Reading List Six Books with Cold, Wintry Settings to Read by the Fire.


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