"The Frozen River" by New York Times bestselling author of historical fiction Ariel Lawhon, is our "GMA" Book Club pick for December.
Inspired by the Pulitzer Prize-winning diaries of Martha Ballard, Lawhon’s new book tells the tale of the renowned 18th century midwife and healer who finds herself at the center of a shocking murder that unhinges her small community of Hallowell, Maine.
Ballard had just finished delivering a baby in the early morning hours of November 1789 when she was called to examine a body found in the Kennebec River. Upon her arrival to the scene, Ballard instantly recognized the body — it belonged to one of two men accused of having assaulted her friend Rebecca Foster. Unfortunately, the other man accused is local judge Joseph North — who was firmly determined to discredit Ballard and Foster’s account. When the locals begin to point fingers as to who is to blame for the murder, Ballard’s son falls under suspicion. It later became clear that to save him, she would have to track down the killer herself. As the wheels of justice turn, Ballard bears witness and must fight against the puritanical forces that will stop at nothing to tear her family apart.
Extensively researched until the final page, "The Frozen River" neatly paints a picture of a community of recent immigrants making a life in an unforgiving landscape as public opinion shifts over the course of the unfolding trial. Beautifully written by Lawhon, the novel brings to life the sting of the frigid Maine air, warmth of the homesteaders’ fur cloaks, and herbal fumes of the tonics Ballard brews. Readers will alternate between swooning at Lawhon’s portrait of Ballard’s storybook marriage and ache for her to find the justice she so desperately seeks, while Ballard’s keen observations about parenting, regret and love ring with a bright contemporary resonance.
Read an excerpt below and get a copy of the book here.
This month, we are also teaming up with Little Free Library to give out free copies in Times Square and at 150 locations across the U.S. and Canada. Since 2009, more than 300 million books have been shared in Little Free Libraries across the world. Click here to find a copy of "The Frozen River" at a Little Free Library location near you.
Read along with us and join the conversation all month long on our Instagram account -- GMA Book Club and #GMABookClub.
"Truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long."
— William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
WHAT’S PAST IS PROLOGUE
The body floats downstream. But it is late November, and the Kennebec River is starting to freeze, large chunks of ice swirling and tumbling through the water, collecting in mounds while clear, cold, fingers of ice stretch out from either bank, reaching into the current, grabbing hold of all that passes by. Already weighted down by soaked clothing and heavy leather boots, the dead man bobs in the ebbing current, unseeing eyes staring at the waning crescent moon.
It is a miserable night with bitter wind and numbing frost and the slower the river moves, the quicker it freezes, trapping him in its sluggish grip, as folds of his homespun linen shirt are thrown out like petals of a wilted, brown tulip. Just an hour ago his hair was combed and pulled back, tied with a strip of lace. He’d taken the lace, of course, and it is possible — fate is such a fragile thing, after all — that he might still be alive if not for that choice. But it was insult on top of injury. Wars have been fought over less.
The dead man was in a hurry to leave this place, was in too much trouble already, and had he taken more care, been patient, he would have heard his assailants in the forest. Heard. Hidden. Held his breath. And waited for them to pass. But the dead man was reckless and impatient. Panting. He’d left tracks in the snow and was not hard to find. His queue came loose in the struggle, that bit of lace reclaimed and shoved in a pocket, and now his hair, brown as a muddy riverbank, is a tangled mess, part of it plastered to his forehead, part in his mouth, pulled there during a last, startled gasp before he was thrown into the river.
His tangled, broken body is dragged along by the current for another quarter of a mile before the ice congeals and grinds to a halt with a tired moan, trapping him fifteen feet from the shore, face an inch below the surface, lips parted, eyes still widened in surprise.
The great freeze has come a month early to the town of Hallowell, Maine and — the dead man could not know this, nor could anyone who lives here — the thaw will not arrive for many, many long months. They will call this the Year of the Long Winter. It will become legend, and he, no small part of it. For now, however, they sleep, safe and warm in their beds, doors shut tight against an early, savage winter. But there — along the riverbank, if you look closely — something dark and agile moves in the moonlight. A fox. Tentative, she sets one paw onto the ice. Then another. She hesitates, for she knows how fickle the river can be, how it longs to swallow everything and pull it into the churning depths below. But the ice holds and the fox inches forward, toward the dead man. She creeps out to where he lies, entombed in the ice. The clever little beast looks at him, her head tilted to the side, but he does not return the gaze. She lifts her nose to the sky. Sniffs for danger. Inhales the pungent scent of frost and pine along the river and, farther away, the faintest whiff of wood smoke. Satisfied, the fox begins to howl.
Thursday, November 26
"You need not fear," I tell Betsy Clark. "In all my years attending women in childbirth, I have never lost a mother."
The young woman looks at me, eyes wide, sweat beading on her temples, and nods. But I do not think she believes me. They never do. Every laboring woman suspects that she is, in fact, moments away from death. This is normal. And it does not offend me. A woman is never more vulnerable than while in labor. Nor is she ever stronger. Like a wounded animal, cornered and desperate, she spends her travail alternately curled in upon herself, or lashing out. It ought to kill a woman, this process of having her body turned inside out. By rights, no human should survive such a thing. And yet, miraculously, they do, time and again.
John Cowan — the young blacksmith apprenticed to Betsy’s husband — came to fetch me and I’d told him there was no time to dally. Betsy’s children come roaring into the world at uncommon speed, with volume to match. Shrieking banshees, all slippery and red-faced. But so small that — even full term — their entire buttocks can fit in the palm of my hand. Wee little things. John took my instructions to heart, setting a pace so fast that my body still aches from our frantic ride through Hallowell.
But now, having barely arrived and situated myself, I find that Betsy is already crowning. Her contractions are thirty seconds apart. This child — like her other two — in a hurry to greet its mother. Thankfully, she is built well for birthing.
"It’s time," I tell her, setting a warm hand on each of her knees. I gently press them apart and help the young woman shimmy her nightgown higher over her bare belly. It is hard, clenched at the peak of a contraction, and Betsy grinds her teeth together, trying not to sob.
Labor renders every woman a novice. Every time is the first time, and the only expertise comes from those assembled to help. And so, Betsy has gathered her women: mother, sisters, cousin, aunt. Birth is a communal act, and all of them spring into action as her resolve slips and she cries out in pain. They know what the sound means. Even those with no specific job find something to do. Boiling water. Building the fire. Folding cloths. This is women’s work at its most elemental. Men have no place in this room, no right, and Betsy’s husband has retreated to his forge, impotent, to pour out his fear and frustration upon the anvil, to beat a piece of molten metal into submission.
Betsy’s women work in tandem, watching me, responding to every cue. I extend a hand, and a warm, wet cloth is set upon it. No sooner have I wiped the newest surge of blood and water away, than it is plucked from my grip and replaced by one that is dry and fresh. The youngest of Betsy’s kin — a cousin, no more than twelve — is charged with cleaning the soiled rags, keeping the kettle at a boil, and replenishing the wash bucket. She applies herself to the task without a flinch or complaint.
"There’s your baby," I say, my hand upon the slick, warm head. "Bald as an egg. Just like the others."
Betsy lifts her chin and speaks with a grimace as the contraction loosens its grip. "Does that mean it’s another girl?"
From "The Frozen River: A Novel" by Ariel Lawhon, published by Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Ariel Lawhon.