Ariel Lawhon’s fast-paced historical thriller “The Frozen River” opens with a dead body floating in the quickly freezing Kennebec River and sweeps readers along on a wild ride through the twists and turns that follow.

It’s 1789, and bitterly cold. Martha Ballard is a midwife in Hallowell, in what was then the District of Maine. As a highly regarded healer, Martha is asked to examine the body pulled out of the river and determine cause of death. The corpse was one of two men accused of a heinous rape by Rebecca Foster, Martha’s patient and friend. Suspecting that the man was murdered by his partner in crime, Joseph North, a powerful judge and businessman, Martha sets out to investigate and hold North to account. As she unravels a tangle of secrets, lies and threats, Martha’s family home and lumber mill – and her very safety – are at grave risk.

Martha Ballard was a real historical figure, as impressive a Mainer as they come. She delivered more than a thousand babies over a long career, and her life was revealed in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “A Midwife’s Tale.” As she explains in her afterword, Lawhon based her fictional Martha on this woman but takes liberties in service of the story. The rape accusation against Joseph North, and Martha’s role in testifying about it, is based on fact.

Unlike many women of the day, Martha (the real and the fictional) can read and write, recording her daily life and interactions with patients in her diary. This diary plays a pivotal role in the novel’s court proceedings, as Martha testifies about the murder and the aftereffects of her friend’s rape, and about the paternity of the babies she delivers (this is also factual; it was a common practice in the nascent court system of the day, required by a law titled “An Act for the Punishment of Fornication, and for the Maintenance of Bastard Children”).

Lawhon’s Martha is easy to like: She’s smart, indomitable, opinionated and tirelessly devoted to her patients. Lawhon captures her grit in courtroom scenes, birthing rooms and the daily slog of managing a household during an 18th-century Maine winter. Martha is rightly proud of her professional expertise – in her mid-50s, she has never lost a mother in her care.

“A woman is never more vulnerable than while in labor. Nor is she ever stronger. … It ought to kill a woman, this process of having her body turned inside out. By rights, no one should survive such a thing. And yet, miraculously, they do, time and again.”


Because of her role in the community, Martha is well-positioned to know the town’s secrets. She desperately wants North brought to justice for the assault on her friend; he’s a villain of the first order, trying to steal the land Martha holds with her husband and given to raping women to teach them a lesson. As she engages in a cat and mouse game with North, other characters, including neighbors and Martha’s grown children, bring new complications. Martha comes to suspect that her sons know more about the mysterious death than they’re letting on.

Lawhon imbues her Martha with a contemporary sensibility – she has a spicy sex life with her exceptionally devoted husband and she’s quick to challenge powerful men (think “Outlander” meets “Call the Midwife,” in colonial New England). She’s a feminist before the word existed, acutely aware of inequities and the extraordinary burdens women bear.

As the stakes are raised and Martha races to face down North, she shows her mettle against those who underestimate her. She repeatedly bests Dr. Page, an incompetent, Harvard-educated doctor brought in by North to undercut Martha’s testimony and her business. In one scene, Page barges into a delivery room and takes over, misdiagnosing false labor. Martha stands her ground, ultimately saving the lives of both mother and baby:

“I have not taken instructions in a birthing room since being apprenticed to an old, rusted battle-axe of a midwife in Oxford. … everything I know about midwifery I learned from her. Thirty years have passed since then, and it will take more than the likes of one presumptuous man to make me shrink back from a patient.”

Scenes like this are satisfying in the moment, even if the real Martha Ballard wouldn’t recognize herself in these pages, and historians could certainly quibble. That isn’t a complaint – faulting fiction for deviating from documentary misses the point. Lawhon sets out to write a propulsive historical thriller with a contemporary sensibility, and she delivers.

But this contemporary viewpoint is used entirely in service of the whodunit plot. By the end of the book, Martha has discovered the culprits responsible for the corpse in the river and exacted retribution on North, in a scene that’s pure revenge fantasy.


Lawhon’s story goes down easily. And what are we to make of the ideas driving it? Women are eminently capable and resourceful, and midwives are great. No argument here! Also, murder by hanging and a lurid maiming are justified if the villain is despicable enough. This raises questions that our modern-minded heroine is not inclined to grapple with.

In the end, Martha falls back on frontier justice. Her methods are as twisted, in their way, as the legal, social, and political systems that enabled genocide, slavery and the subjugation of generations of women. It bears noting that the real Joseph North went unpunished, walking free and unscathed. One plucky fictional heroine who triumphs against all odds can’t counterbalance these hard facts, much as we might want her to.

There’s real pleasure to be found in sinking into the couch and escaping into a rousing tale about a woman who is unambiguously heroic, who faces adversity and triumphs. And yet. Martha Ballard’s life was remarkable and eventful enough to merit numerous books, and I hope she gets them. I’d welcome a more introspective novel that delves into the nuanced, unresolved nature of a singular life – perhaps offering insights about how to bear inevitable setbacks and face villains who refuse to concede; how to find our way when the arc of the moral universe isn’t bending so inevitably toward progress, and live to fight another day.

Genanne Walsh is the author of a novel, “Twister,” and a nonfiction chapbook, “Eggs in Purgatory.” She lives in Portland.

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