The frozen river by Ariel Lawhon

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Hallowell, Maine in 1790, situated on the Kennebec River, is a thriving settlement shipping timber, furs and other produce down the broad fast flowing river. In November 1789 the river is starting to freeze for the winter and midwife, Maria Ballard is called to a birth, another baby girl for the blacksmith Charles Clark who was hoping for a son to help in the forge. But there is little rest for Maria as a messenger comes to say she is urgently needed at the tavern to act as coroner. A logging raft has been trapped in the ice at Bumberhook point and a body is found in the water. The dead man is identified as Joshua Burgess and Martha, on examining the body, finds that he had been beaten and hanged before being dumped in the river. Recently Rebecca Foster, the pastor’s wife, was raped by two men who broke into her home while her husband was away. She accused Joshua Burgess and Joseph North. But Joseph North is in a position of power, a magistrate and representative of the Kennebec Proprietors, owners of the leasehold of many in the town including the Ballards and in a position to prevent investigations. So starts a long winter where the everyday lives of the people of Hallowell are documented in Maria’s diary which proves important testimony as we are given a glimpse of the court system at the time. The story is from the point of view of Maria Ballard, a 55 year-old mother of nine, six surviving. Her miller husband, Ephraim taught her to read and write, unusual for women of that time. Not only is she a midwife and healer but she manages the domestic side of the family, growing food and processing it as well as raising a large family. There are many characters developed giving an insight into the social lives and dynamics of a small developing community, reliant on one another, gaining strength through interdependence. The novel is based on historical figure Maria Ballard and a book based on her diaries, A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich won a Pulitzer prize. This historical fiction version brings to life the period and characters (there are many of them and it is sometimes hard to remember who’s who) and spices it up with a murder mystery, that sometimes requires a suspension of disbelief. But it is easy to go with the flow as it is such a great read and an author's note at the end explains the historical context.

Themes: Colonial America, Midwifery, Murder, Historical fiction.

Sue Speck