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Ariel Lawhon's novel 'The Frozen River' follows a 1789 midwife in pursuit of justice

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A new novel opens with a body floating in a New England river in the winter of 1789.

ARIEL LAWHON: (Reading) 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.

SIMON: That's Ariel Lawhon, the bestselling author of historical fiction, reading from her latest book, "The Frozen River." She joins us now on the road from her book tour. Thanks so much for being with us.

LAWHON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You introduce us to a genuine heroine in this novel - Martha Ballard of Hallowell, Maine, who really existed. She is a midwife. Why is a midwife called into the case?

LAWHON: In the late 1700s, midwives did not just deliver babies. They were more of a broad-spectrum medical professional. They tended minor wounds. They performed minor surgeries and often performed autopsies. They were called in to examine the dead and determine cause of death, if possible. So in this story, we open with this dead body. And shortly after, Martha Ballard is called to examine the body and see if she can determine the cause of death.

SIMON: How did you find out about Martha Ballard?

LAWHON: On accident. I was pregnant with my fourth son, and I was in my doctor's office. And it is quite possible that if my doctor had been on time that day, this novel would have never been written. But he had gotten stuck at the hospital with a tricky delivery. And, therefore, I had gotten stranded. And I read the book I'd brought with me. And I read all of the magazines in the office. And all that was left was a pile of scary pamphlets in the corner. And hidden under that was a small devotional. So I opened it to that day's date. It was August 8, 2008. And I read the story of a woman named Martha Ballard, who had delivered over a thousand babies in her career and never lost a mother.

SIMON: Wow.

LAWHON: And I remember sitting there thinking, my own doctor can't boast a record like that. And I thought it would make a brilliant novel. So I ripped the page out, and I took it home, and I held on to it for 15 years.

SIMON: Midwives learn a lot of secrets, don't they?

LAWHON: Yes, they do. The other astonishing thing about Martha Ballard is that she kept a diary for 30 years at a time when most women could not read or write. And in that diary is recorded all of the births, all of the deaths, the murders, the scandals that happened in her small town. Because she was tending people behind closed doors, she learned their secrets.

SIMON: I made a note of one of your very good lines. Martha Ballard writes - or you write for Martha Ballard in her voice at one point - that (reading) women are too busy to keep diaries. They're the luxury of men with libraries, butlers and wives. Mothers find a different way to get their work done.

Did you feel a particular obligation to tell a story like this from this vantage point?

LAWHON: I did. I find that so often, the heroines in novels, they are young, and they are in their 20s or 30s, and they are at the beginning of their lives. But what we miss, and what is not often portrayed on the page, is a mature woman as the heroine. We don't get to see that often. And when this novel opens, Martha is 54 years old. She's been married for 35 years. And she's had nine children, only six of whom are still living.

This is a woman who has seen a lot of life. And I really enjoyed writing a different type of heroine - a woman who is decades into a busy, thriving family life. And I think we should see that more on the page. We should see mature women get to be the heroes. We should see mature women get to solve the murders. And being in midlife myself, I found that I'm longing to read that. I want to see more of that personally. So in this case, I wrote it.

SIMON: The story unfolds the year the U.S. Constitution comes into effect. And the justice system is different than what we see on "Law & Order," isn't it?

LAWHON: Yes. I always tell people, you have to throw out everything you think you know about due process when you read this book. The Constitution had barely been written. The Bill of Rights had not yet been ratified. During the six months that this novel takes place, the Supreme Court sat for the very first time. The justice system was sparse. It barely existed. The rules were very loose. And Martha was operating within that very loose, strange system, trying to find justice in the best way that she could.

SIMON: As a novelist, how do you steer your responsibility to history with a real-life figure like Martha and the creative license that you take as a novelist to tell a compelling story?

LAWHON: It's a challenge. I have always tried to stick very closely to the facts of history. And then I would find my story in the cracks, the conversations that are not recorded, the betrayals we don't know about. In this case, and really for the first time, I took a few more liberties for the sake of the story itself. Everything was in service to the overall story. And then, obviously, in the author's note, I come clean about the changes that I made and why.

SIMON: Anything about this time period that surprised you? You know, we have an inexact idea set in our minds of - I don't know - powdered wigs and tricorn hats and breeches and that sort of thing.

LAWHON: I think we think history is distant. It's this thing in the past. Whereas, once you start reading and investigating, you realize people never change. For instance, something that actually surprised me and probably shouldn't is that 4 in 10 first pregnancies in Martha's day were conceived out of wedlock - 40%. Only 1 to 2%, or two of those babies, were born out of wedlock. So you had lots of shotgun weddings. And you had lots of - shall we say - nine-pound, premature babies. Like, oh, he's two months early, but look, he's huge.

We think of the Puritans as very straight-laced and pure - turns out, not so much. People are people, and that has never changed throughout human history. And that's the fun part of historical fiction for me, is you can dig into the past and you go, oh, nothing changes. And they are no different from the people that I know in my real life.

SIMON: Ariel Lawhon - her new novel, "The Frozen River." Thanks so much for being with us.

LAWHON: Thank you. I have really enjoyed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARADIS SONG, "LA BALLADE DE JIM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.