The Underground River
Set aboard a nineteenth century riverboat theater, this New York Times Notable book is the “captivating, thoughtful, and unforgettable” (Kathleen Grissom, author of The Kitchen House) story of a charmingly frank and naive seamstress who is blackmailed into saving runaways on the Underground Railroad, jeopardizing her freedom, her livelihood, and a new love.
It’s 1838, and May Bedloe works as a seamstress for her cousin, the famous actress Comfort Vertue—until their steamboat sinks on the Ohio River. Though they both survive, both must find new employment. Comfort is hired to give lectures by noted abolitionist, Flora Howard, and May finds work on a small flatboat, Hugo and Helena’s Floating Theatre, as it cruises the border between the northern states and the southern slave-holding states.
May becomes indispensable to Hugo and his troupe, and all goes well until she sees her cousin again. Comfort and Mrs. Howard are also traveling down the Ohio River, speaking out against slavery at the many riverside towns. May owes Mrs. Howard a debt she cannot repay, and Mrs. Howard uses the opportunity to enlist May in her network of shadowy characters who help ferry slaves across the river to freedom. Lying has never come easy to May, but now she is compelled to break the law, deceive all her newfound friends, and deflect the rising suspicions of a slave catcher.
As May’s secrets become more tangled, the Floating Theatre readies for its biggest performance yet. May’s predicament could mean doom for her friends on board, including her beloved Hugo, unless she can figure out a way to entrap those who know her best. “Twain has his ‘Life on the Mississippi’. Conway’s life on the Ohio makes you see the place, through May’s eyes, in all its muddy glory” (New York Times Book Review).
“Allen gehört was du denkst; dein eigen ist nur, was du fühlst. What you think belongs to all, what you feel is yours alone.”
May Bedloe, a young seamstress, survives a steamboat accident and finds herself out of work as her cousin, Comfort: an aging actress, is hired as an abolitionist speaker. Comfort’s benefactor offers to send May home, but there isn’t anything there for her anymore and instead, she takes the money offered and becomes the “costumer” for The Floating Theater, as they coast up and down the Ohio between the North and the Confederate South, entertaining anyone who could afford it.
The price May must pay for misusing the abolitionist’s money may come at too high a price when she is blackmailed into smuggling slaves across the Ohio, almost losing her life more than once in the process. Her moral ambiguity is tried and tested as she comes to terms with what she’s chosen. Is she willing to overlook her own beliefs to be with those she cares about?
I won this book in a giveaway, and it languished on my nightstand for a while until the story caught my imagination and I simply could not put it down until I finished it. I found it wandering around in my dreams, and my response of tears towards the end was overwhelming. Martha Conway has written a crackerjack of a historical novel and takes you with her as she braves the twists and turns of the history of abolition and the Underground Railroads in America. Highly Recommended 5/5