(Review) The Underground River by Martha Conway
Genre: Historical fiction.
Source: Free copy from Touchstone.
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. The link to read more on this topic: A Brief History of the Abolitionist Movement.
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.