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The Underground River: A Novel Hardcover – June 20, 2017
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“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)
About the Author
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.
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May Bedloe, 22 years old, is socially backward, literal and has a straight forward nature. May derives comfort from sewing a perfectly straight hemline. She believes that a good costume helps an actor feel his or her part. Sewing makes her forget the unfamiliar, strange world she has entered. Mrs. Howard pushes May to leave for home by giving her twenty dollars for the fare. May takes the money but has nowhere to go. Looking for work along the Ohio River, she notices The Floating Theatre, a two -story flatbed boat. Thaddeus Mason, actor, opportunist and fellow Moselle survivor, convinces Floating Theatre owner, Captain Hugo Cushing to hire him as an actor and May as seamstress since May has twenty dollars to lend financially strapped Hugo for a much needed boat pump.
The Floating Theatre is a small acting troupe consisting of five actors and three actresses. They usually give one performance in each town large enough to draw a crowd, working both sides of the Ohio River, performing in free and slave states. May starts to blossom within this family of sorts. Instead of eating meals alone, she now eats family style with the cast. She has become indispensable to Hugo. Besides sewing costumes and making clothing repairs, she can fill in for the piano player, design admission tickets, put posters up in town and supply complimentary tickets to important townspeople. The goal is to pack the house for each performance. Gently and patiently, Hugo has mentored May on the fine points of acting success. He tells her to never underestimate the power of children because they will beg their parents to see the show. Never promise something you won't deliver. If you promise magic tricks, deliver the magic. Additionally, do not get involved in the fight for emancipation.
All is going well for May until she is visited by her cousin Comfort and Mrs. Howard. Mrs. Howard wants her twenty dollars back since May did not use the money for a ticket home. Mrs. Howard tells May that she can work off her debt by delivering a few packages as The Floating Theatre travels downstream. She will have to break the law to comply. The deliveries place her acting family in harms way. What would Hugo think of her deliveries after all the kindness, consideration and budding feelings developing between them?
"The Underground River" by Martha Conway is a historical novel showcasing the tight knit and family bonding of a group of traveling actors as they provided yearly, much anticipated, entertainment to farmers, merchants and their families. May became an unlikely conductor of the Underground Railroad by delivering small packages after troupe performances and in the dark of night. The character development of each member of the troupe was excellent. Each actor had his own story to tell. Kudos to Martha Conway.
The year is 1838. May Bedloe, age 22, is a companion to her cousin, Comfort Vertue, who is an actress. May is the seamstress for Comfort. They are traveling by a steamship named the Moselle, when the boilers burst and exploded. The ship sank in the Ohio river. May, who is a strong swimmer, swam about a mile to the shore. After the accident, Comfort takes refuge and accepts a new career with a notable abolitionist. Comfort became a speaker for this movement. May takes a job with a theater group on a flatboat. The theater boat travels up and down the river between the border states. Those states on the south side are pro-slavery. May had accepted money from Mrs. Howard to begin a new life. Mrs. Howard is the new companion of Comfort. Later, Mrs. Howard wanted her money back. She clarified it was not a gift but a loan. May became apart of the abolitionist movement because she had to repay Mrs. Howard by performing certain deeds.
I was drawn to this story and loved it for several reasons:
1. A traveling theater boat.
2. The abolitionist movement.
3. May is a different kind of personality.
4. The time period is 23 years before the start of the Civil War.
When I think of a traveling theater boat I am reminded of the musical Show Boat. The Underground River is not a light-hearted adaption of a serious time in American history. On the other hand, it touches a portion of the history of the Abolitionist movement.
May has a different kind of personality than I’ve come across in stories. If she were anymore serious I might find her tedious and boring. As the story progresses, her full personality is shown. I am left believing she is the larger than life character, and her cousin, the actress turned abolitionist speaker, is the insignificant and miniscule character. May and Comfort are the opposite of one another. The fullness of who they are became known when they go their separate ways. One of my favorite aspects of reading a story is watching the characters develop!
Many of the books I’ve read are just before, during, or post the Civil War. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852. I read this book several years ago. I assumed the abolitionist movement happened about this year. I have read a bit more on this and discovered it began in the early 1830s.
Another favorite aspect of reading a story is how the author describes a scene or people. I noticed Conway made a point of bringing out the things about humans that many authors pass over. For example, one person in the story is described as having crooked teeth. Another character is noted as studying another character. Bringing these fine points out in a story shows human nature. By showing human nature, the story comes alive.
I had originally planned to give this book a very good rating. I’ve had time to re-consider the story and characters, and most of all how I feel about the book in the days after reading it. The book is memorable for me because of May. She is a uniquely crafted character. The story swirls around her without her knowing it. She is a counter-weight to the history of this era. She personifies all that people would hope to be.