THE UNDERGROUND RIVER
BY MARTHA CONWAY
Publication Date: June 20, 2017
Hardcover, eBook, AudioBook
Genre: Historical Fiction
The New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
Set aboard a nineteenth century riverboat theater, this is the moving, page-turning 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 ferry babies given up by their slave mothers across the river to freedom. Lying has never come easy to May, but now she is compelled to break the law, deceive all her new-found friends, and deflect the rising suspicions of Dr. Early who captures runaways and sells them back to their southern masters.
As May’s secrets become more tangled and harder to keep, the Floating Theatre readies for its biggest performance yet. May’s predicament could mean doom for all her friends on board, including her beloved Hugo, unless she can figure out a way to trap those who know her best.
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Praise for The Underground River
“Creating a perfectly straight seam finds echoes throughout the book in plot devices and metaphors, even in saving souls, and it may come as a surprise how lively and sustaining this lost art can be. 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.” (The New York Times Book Review)
“The Underground River is both a dear love story and a page-turning adventure about the Underground Railroad—and an unwilling participant. An extraordinary cast of memorable characters gives this book irresistible appeal while the setting on the watery boundary between North and South places them in dangerous and morally ambiguous territory. A captivating, thoughtful, and unforgettable read.” (Kathleen Grissom, author of The Kitchen House and Glory over Everything)
“It is part of Martha Conway’s gift as a writer to weave stories from the richest and most interesting periods of American history. Set on a nineteenth century floating theatre on the Ohio River, The Underground River is a riveting and atmospheric novel about slavery, betrayal and redemption, with a memorably forthright heroine, and a plot as fast flowing and twisty as the river itself.” (Louisa Treger, author of The Lodger)
“Warning: The Underground River is a page-turner. Be prepared to stay up late reading, because once you start you won’t want to put it down. From the first page to the last, Martha Conway’s novel is riveting, immersing the reader in the adventures of an unlikely heroine who finds courage, independence and love amid the social turmoil of the Underground Railroad. Vividly drawn settings, original characters, and perilous situations make this mesmerizing book one you will remember for years to come.” (Amy Belding Brown, author of Flight of the Sparrow)
“Martha Conway’s The Underground River is simply wonderful, a novel in which the women—good and bad—matter. The tale is told by young May Bedloe, who grows up and falls in love as the modest little show-boat drifts down the river between the small towns of the slave-holding South and the free North. May is pitched into the middle of the Slave vs Free drama not through conviction–though she does indeed know what’s right–but by blackmail, until eventually she musters the courage to risk everything for another woman. I loved May, and I very much hope we have not seen the last of her.” (Beverly Swerling, author of City of Dreams)
“Well-researched and gripping to the end, The Underground River is a vivid look at a pivotal chapter in American history.” (The Mercury News)
“The Underground River evokes Twain in both story and setting. A compelling book that would no doubt please the Master of the Mississippi….A compelling story of a young woman who is trying to find her way in a world that, in a few years, will be ripped apart by war. A tale worthy of Twain.” (The Free Lance-Star)
“May herself is a marvelous creation, more than a little reminiscent of Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’ True Grit….You’ll root for her till the last page. Add a gentle love story and an especially sinister villain (who enters stage left, rather late) and The Underground River has the makings of a cult classic.” (Wilmington Star-News)
“Thanks to the success of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the subject of the abolition movement is popular in fiction now. Conway (Thieving Forest; Sugarland) offers a novel take on the topic, and book groups will especially enjoy the distinctive setting, the rich historical details, and the thorny issues begging to be discussed.” (Library Journal)
“Readers will profit from narrator May’s attention to detail and will appreciate the richly drawn showboat and the North-South border setting.” (Booklist)
May Bedloe is the seamstress for her famous actress cousin, Comfort Vertue. May has been with Comfort since her parents passed away and feels secure in her routine and Comfort's knowledge of May's irregularities. May has always been very direct in her speech and has a hard time with anything that isn't exactly the truth. May's life changes when the steamboat she and Comfort are travelling on explodes on the Ohio River in 1838. May and Comfort lose everything. Comfort is soon snapped up by benefactress and abolitionist Flora Howard who will have Comfort speak for her cause. May is not included in this plan; so she decides that she will find employment on her own. May is hired on Hugo and Helena's Floating Theatre; but she needed to use the money Flora gave her to go home in order to get established. May soon finds herself an integral part of the Floating Theatre and comes into her own. When The Floating Theatre and Comfort's speaking tour cross paths, Flora uses May's place on a boat traveling from south to north for her own deed of transporting people to freedom, jeopardizing May's place in the Theatre.
The Underground River is a different look at how the Underground Railroad functioned and some of it's players. Interesting characters and the unique setting pulled me in. May's character has several quirks and might be on the autism spectrum if she lived in the present. Her directfulness and untouched insight gave a very honest look at the people around her; abolitionist Flora Howard is a bully using others to further her own cause, even Comfort kept May hidden and kept putting her down in order to raise herself up. The true heroes, Leo, Donaldson and Hugo shine through May's eyes. Though the book is about the Underground Railroad, the process and danger of the transport is really only half the story. Most of the story revolves around life on the river and the theatre. Through May's perspective, we get a good look at how the towns along the river in the North and South are all pretty similar except for the presence or absence of slavery and peoples attitudes about it. There is also an intimate look into theatre life and the distinctiveness of a riverboat theatre. The teamwork, diligence and creativeness of the entire crew is apparent. I do wish May had been a willing player in the transport instead of being blackmailed, she had the compassion for the job and believed in the cause, but the fact that she is being forced marred my view a bit. Overall, an exciting and insightful historical fiction read about the Underground Railroad and Theatre life.
This book was received for free in return for an honest review.
Martha Conway grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the sixth of seven daughters. Her first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award, and she has won several awards for her historical fiction, including an Independent Book Publishers Award and the North American Book Award for Historical Fiction. Her short fiction has been published in the Iowa Review, Massachusetts Review, Carolina Quarterly, Folio, Epoch, The Quarterly, and other journals. She has received a California Arts Council Fellowship for Creative Writing, and has reviewed books for the Iowa Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. She now lives in San Francisco, and is an instructor of creative writing for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program and UC Berkeley Extension. She is the author of The Underground River.
For more information, please visit Martha Conway’s website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.