The Underground River
by Martha Conway
Edition: ebook, 2017 ARC
Synopsis: 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 Ranaways 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 Ranaways 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.
In the wake of being aboard a steamboat that sinks, May searches for her cousin. She is astonished when her cousin declares May unnecessary. This young woman must make her own way in the world, and comes to know more about herself and the changing world around her.
May is such an entertaining character. She is partially deaf, struggles with telling a falsehood, and is precise in what she says or does. Her dealings with new people are awkward and all the more enjoyable because of it. Watching her learn, make mistakes, and grow as an individual was the best part of the book.
The cast and crew of the riverboat made excellent supporting cast. The plot moved along at a good pace, although the ‘underground’ detail didn’t come into play until much later than I expected.
All in all, this is a well told historical tale with a main character I could relate to. Its clean and interesting, exactly the kind of book I would happily recommend to other readers.
I received an ARC through NetGalley for reviewing purposes.