Reviews for The frozen river: a novel

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Spanning the winter of 1789–90 in Hallowell, Maine, from the freezing of the Kennebec River to its late thaw, Lawhon’s outstanding sixth novel is based on the actual life of frontier midwife Martha Ballard, who recorded daily diary entries about her household and career. Called to examine the body of Joshua Burgess after it was retrieved from icy waters, Martha recognizes the telltale signs of hanging. Burgess and another man, a local judge, had been accused of raping a young pastor’s wife four months earlier, and Martha believes her account unquestioningly. She also guesses the two crimes are connected. A sage, strong presence at 54, Martha is an extraordinary character. Devoted to her patients and her six surviving children, mostly young adults with complicated love lives, she battles subjugation by a Harvard-educated doctor who dares to think her incapable. Although this isn’t a traditional detective story, Martha’s narrative will capture historical mystery fans’ attention with its dramatic courtroom scenes and emphasis on justice, particularly for women. Flashbacks to Martha’s past add context and generate additional suspense. Martha’s enduring romance with her supportive husband, Ephraim, is beautifully evoked, and details about the lives of the townspeople make the post-American Revolutionary atmosphere feel fully lived-in. Lawhon's first-rate tale should entrance readers passionate about early America and women’s history.

Publishers Weekly
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Lawhon (Code Name Hélène) draws from the diary of an 18th-century midwife for the stirring story of one woman’s quest for justice. In 1789 Maine, 54-year-old midwife Martha Ballard is asked to help determine the cause of death for Joshua Burgess, an accused rapist whose body was found frozen in the river. Martha is convinced that Burgess was beaten and hanged before he was thrown into the water. Several months earlier, she treated a woman named Rebecca Foster for injuries sustained from rape, and Rebecca told her the assailants were Burgess and Joseph North, a judge. After a court determines there’s not enough evidence against North for a rape charge, despite Martha’s testimony about Rebecca’s injuries, a trial is arranged on different charges, but North disappears. Martha attempts to prove Burgess was murdered, hoping to bring scrutiny to North as a suspect in the killing, whose motive may have been to keep Burgess from testifying against him about the rape. Lawhon combines modern prose with the immediacy of her source material, making for an accessible and textured narrative. This accomplished historical powerfully speaks to centuries-old inequities that remain in the present day. Agent: Elisabeth Weed, The Book Group. (Dec.)

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

When a man accused of rape turns up dead, an Early American town seeks justice amid rumors and controversy. Lawhon’s fifth work of historical fiction is inspired by the true story and diaries of midwife Martha Ballard of Hallowell, Maine, a character she brings to life brilliantly here. As Martha tells her patient in an opening chapter set in 1789, “You need not fear….In all my years attending women in childbirth, I have never lost a mother.” This track record grows in numerous compelling scenes of labor and delivery, particularly one in which Martha has to clean up after the mistakes of a pompous doctor educated at Harvard, one of her nemeses in a town that roils with gossip and disrespect for women’s abilities. Supposedly, the only time a midwife can testify in court is regarding paternity when a woman gives birth out of wedlock—but Martha also takes the witness stand in the rape case against a dead man named Joshua Burgess and his living friend Col. Joseph North, whose role as judge in local court proceedings has made the victim, Rebecca Foster, reluctant to make her complaint public. Further complications are numerous: North has control over the Ballard family's lease on their property; Rebecca is carrying the child of one of her rapists; Martha’s son was seen fighting with Joshua Burgess on the day of his death. Lawhon weaves all this into a richly satisfying drama that moves suspensefully between childbed, courtroom, and the banks of the Kennebec River. The undimmed romance between 40-something Martha and her husband, Ephraim, adds a racy flair to the proceedings. Knowing how rare the quality of their relationship is sharpens the intensity of Martha’s gaze as she watches the romantic lives of her grown children unfold. As she did with Nancy Wake in Code Name Hélène (2020), Lawhon creates a stirring portrait of a real-life heroine and, as in all her books, includes an endnote with detailed background. A vivid, exciting page-turner from one of our most interesting authors of historical fiction. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.