When a young seamstress is left stranded and homeless after a steamboat accident on the Ohio River, she finds work and refuge on board a famous floating theatre.
But the year is 1838 and in pre-Civil War America the mighty river is a dangerous, porous border between the free states of the North and the Confederate slave states of the South. And in a nation divided by prejudice, it seems everyone must take a side.
Martha Conway, award-winning US author of 12 Bliss Street and Thieving Forest, explores the complex moral dilemmas of slavery, compromise and betrayal in a powerful and gripping novel of ideas, emotions and dramas.
At the centre of the story is May Bedloe, an unsuspecting white woman caught up in what became known as the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses established by abolitionists to help fugitive slaves escape across the border into the free states of the North.
But Conway muddies the waters of the Ohio even further by plunging May – a put-upon ‘seamstress, dresser, and trunk packer’ with an intriguing personality disorder bordering on the autism spectrum – into the not-so-gentle arms of a group of unscrupulous abolitionists who are prepared to use anyone in pursuit of their cause.
Twenty-two-year-old May Bedloe occasionally resents her life as general dogsbody to her pretty, preening cousin Comfort Vertue whose career as an actress has taken the two of them on a roving route from New York State to their current steamboat voyage downriver to St Louis.
But May, who sees the world very literally and ‘doesn’t understand what people mean outside of their words,’ has known little else but her steady, if frustrating, life with Comfort and is fearful of ‘change.’
When the boat is involved in a tragic accident, Comfort is taken in by wealthy Cincinnati abolitionist Flora Howard who instantly recognises that the young woman’s good looks and strong acting voice would be an asset to her cause.
But Flora sees no role for May and sends her on her way with a twenty dollar bill to pay her fare home to Toledo. Determined to make a living on her own, May instead finds work on the famous Helen and Hugo’s Floating Theatre, a barge ‘with a kind of house built on it, like a box on a box,’ that plies its trade along the river.
Her creativity and needlework skills quickly become invaluable and she settles into life among the colourful troupe of actors and the boat’s handsome British owner Hugo Cushing. She finds friends, and possibly even the promise of romance.
But cruising along the border between North and South is fraught with danger and facing a debt that must be repaid, May is forced to transport secret passengers, under cover of darkness, across the river and along the ‘underground railroad.’
As May’s secrets become harder to keep, she learns she must endanger those now dear to her. And to save the lives of others, she must risk her own…
The Floating Theatre is an ingenious production, a gripping, atmospheric adventure story, packed with secrets and treachery, but with flashes of leavening light humour and with a strident anti-slavery message at its moral heart.
Conway’s cast of diverse and beautifully crafted characters help to keep this story high above the water line as we travel upriver with our forthright narrator May on a showboat full of surprises, disturbing discoveries, romance and redemption.
This is a fascinating, gritty and enlightening glimpse of the realities of life on the showboats in the early to mid-19th century, the terrible plight of slaves in the southern states and the risks taken by all those determined to fight for the cause of freedom.
(Zaffre, paperback, £8.99)