The Underground River by Martha Conway

Posted June 20, 2017 by Minx

This review is based on a complimentary book I received from NetGalley. It is an honest and voluntary review. The complimentary receipt of it in no way affected my review or rating.

The Underground River by Martha Conway The Underground River by Martha Conway
Genres: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Release Date: June 20, 2017
Publisher: Touchstone
Format: ARC
Source: NetGalley
Pages: 352
ISBN: 1501160206
Purchase at: Amazon Barnes & Noble Book Depository Google Play Kobo IndieBound Books-A-Million
Minx's Rating:

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.


The Underground River is a story set in the late 1830’s. The abolitionist movement was in its infancy and it would be years before the 13th Amendment to the Constitution – the Emancipation Proclamation – would be ratified. The story is a memoir told through the lens of the main character May Bedloe. This is not a book that really focuses on the abolitionists, the underground railroad or the realities of life for slaves in the south.

May was born to older parents and was orphaned at a rather young age. Not knowing much of the world beyond being a seamstress she goes to live with her cousin Comfort and her new husband. Upon arrival though she finds that Comfort has been widowed and that they need to figure out how they are going to survive. Comfort takes to the stage and May becomes her personal seamstress and they stay together for a few years. Traveling aboard a steamship to another city in order to start employment May and Comfort are separated when the ship’s boilers suddenly exploded. After a few days May is reunited with her cousin who has been staying with Mrs. Howard a woman they became acquainted with before the ship they were all on sank.

Flora Howard is a well-known abolitionist and wants Comfort to be her spokesperson for her movement. She also apparently has other ideas for Comfort and wants May out of the picture so she can work her wiles on Comfort. May does not want to leave but she is left with little choice. Comfort being the selfish person she is makes no real effort not to be separated from May. I have no love for this character at all! Through trickery May feigns that she is going to take Flora up on her offer and Flora is gracious enough to give May the fare she needs to return home. May had plans to use the money to secure employment. Little did May know how this deception would come back to haunt her.

This leaves May on her own for the first time. Luckily an actor that she was acquainted with was able to get her a job on Hugo and Helena’s Floating Theatre, a flatboat that goes up and down the Mississippi River performing shows for the summer. It is here that May really is appreciated and learns to live. Every good thing that ever happened to her occurs on this vessel. I loved learning about life on the flatboat, so charming! I enjoyed the actors and boat personnel that she works with, they are well fleshed out and interesting. It was a pleasure seeing May’s character grow and development with new experiences.

Knowing her cousin’s role in the abolitionist movement, when May saw a notice that seemed dangerous for Comfort she decided that she needed to warn her. Waste of time as Comfort was aware of the drama and actually found it to be more of a joke. May though had done her duty as far as she was concerned and returned to her friends. I wish she had never gone to see her cousin because that choice that is how she became enlisted in Flora’s crusade. A crusade that was not May’s choice, it was blackmail from a debt owed.

May was not an abolitionist and helping slaves was never something she had considered. When she took on a role in the movement she was not prepared for her it. I completely disliked why she started ferrying babies given up by slave mothers. She could have said no, there was nothing that really could have been done to her to force her take part in Flora’s plan. I would have preferred that May’s heart had been so disgusted with the treatment of the slaves and that she just had to take action. For me, to have her manipulated into taking part, having it not be something she felt strongly for, took away from any emotional impact in her role of ferrying the children.

Once May started her part in the process of taking the babies to freedom she did start to become more emotionally involved. She at least started to question things around her and did the best that she could. Mostly though her concern was for herself if she was caught. When slavery issues were brought up in the story it was mainly through the lens of her considering how what she was doing was illegal and how much trouble it would be for her if she was caught. She was also very concerned for how it would impact her friends in the floating theater.

It was a pleasure to read the story of May and the characters aboard the floating theatre. This is not a book that tackles the complex issue of slavery in the south prior to the civil war though. This story is a memoir narrated by May about her personal experiences during an exciting and dangerous period of her life. The ending was left in a way that this could turn into a series or that it ended on a high note. Either way this was a very entertaining and weighty story that gave us a glimpse in life for acting companies during the 19th century and how the issue of slavery was seen through their eyes.

*Thank you to NetGalley & Touchstone for this eARC of The Underground River*


About Martha Conway

Author Martha Conway

Martha Conway is the author of several novels, including Thieving Forest, which won the North American Book Award in Historical Fiction and an Independent Publishers Book Award. It has been called “extraordinary” by the Akron Beacon Journal and “hypnotic” by Kirkus Reviews. Her first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her short fiction has appeared in the Iowa Review, Mississippi Review, The Quarterly, Carolina Quarterly, and other publications. Martha has reviewed fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Iowa Review, and is a recipient of a California Arts Council fellowship in Creative Writing. Her novel Sugarland was named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2016.

The Underground River, her latest novel, will be released in June 2017 from Touchstone.

Martha is an instructor of creative writing at Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program and UC Berkeley Extension. She received her BA from Vassar College in History and English, and her MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Born and raised in northern Ohio, she now lives in San Francisco with her family, where the fog reminds her of lake-effect cloud cover in Cleveland.

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