by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@ashley_dicksonellison)
Are you a historical fiction lover? I do not read a lot of historical fiction, but this book has made me think twice about that!
I was looking for a seasonal read (for the Unabridged 2024 Reading Challenge!), and this one, Ariel Lawhon's The Frozen River (Bookshop.org | Libro.fm), with its wintry title and striking cover, certainly looked seasonally appropriate.
This story is based on the real life of Martha Ballard, a midwife in Maine in the late 1700s. Because Martha learned to read and write - a skill known by very few women at the time - she kept a journal accounting her life and the events she encountered, and Lawhon used that journal and the biography of Ballard's life (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812) to weave together this brilliant historical fiction novel.
This is a story about who holds power and has agency and what they can do with that power. It's about justice and the quest to do what's right - and how hard it is to get justice in situations where those in power are corrupt. Martha Ballard is a passionate, competent woman who simply wants to see justice done but who has to watch the way that the judicial system only serves the white men who control it.
This is also a story about different types of care and how midwives have been providing care for women's health for ages. I love the way that we see Martha's approach toward care, which echoes the approach of midwives throughout history. She was taught and apprenticed by another midwife at the end of her own career, and Martha learned to focus on the woman - to say the woman's name, to be with her during the difficult birthing journey, and to help nature take its course. (The fact that my own beloved midwife, who helped bring my two daughters into the world, shares the name Martha might have heightened my love of this character!) Martha, a pragmatic and efficient practitioner, helps the women in her community through many challenges.
"Listening is a skill acquired by the doing."
When a young Harvard-educated doctor comes into town, Martha discovers a stark contrast in his approach toward labor and delivery, and she experiences some people's preferences toward men with degrees and the way that those accolades can color people's opinions.
Martha also learns, when the wife of the town's preacher is raped by prominent men in the town and confides in her, how much power the men in the town have. When one of those two men turns up dead at the beginning of the novel and Martha is asked to autopsy the body, a complex mystery begins to unfold that draws her and her family into its center.
Martha, a mother of nine children, six of whom are still living, has many responsibilities that pull at her time, but she finds a way to balance her roles as wife, mother, midwife, and activist.
"I am never guaranteed the certainty of quiet, much less a solid length of time to chase my thoughts and bind them together. That is a luxury of men with libraries, butlers, and wives. Mothers find a different way to get their work done."
Martha continues throughout the novel to keep accurate account of everything happening around her in her journal. This source proves to be a vital component of documenting the events that have happened leading up to the trial about the rape. Many moments in the story are excruciating as we as readers see the grossly unfair judicial system, but Martha's courage and steadfast determination will stay with me for a long time to come. I also love discovering Martha's beautiful and complex relationships with Ephraim, her husband, and with each of her children.
"'It takes decades to really know a man, Dolly, and you've barely had weeks with that one. I'd suggest you not assume anything about what he will or will not do.' It's a hard lesson, but it's best she learn it now."
As shown in the quote above, Martha is also simply a wise, level-headed woman full of both compassion and competence, and I admire her so much. I loved this novel and its testament to the power of women and the vital role that midwives play in our world.
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