Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review and Giveaway: THE UNDERGROUND RIVER by Martha Conway

Geographical boundaries are rarely as precise as they appear on a map, and moral boundaries can be just as fluid. Martha Conway's new novel, THE UNDERGROUND RIVER (Touchstone, June 2018), explores these truths with creative and compelling verve. Set in 1838 on a floating theater boat traveling down the Ohio River--the watery boundary dividing slave territory from free--the novel traces its characters' journeys from ignorance to understanding, aloofness to connection, ambivalence to conviction. As the boat docks for performances in seemingly interchangeable towns on both sides of the river, protagonist May Bedloe learns that appearance does not always correspond with reality--and that this discrepancy, far from being perfidious, often serves admirable ends.

Much of the novel's force and charm derives from May's idiosyncracies. A twenty-two year old orphan, May works as her actress cousin's dresser, designing, sewing, and caring for Comfort's costumes as the pair travels from gig to gig. Blunt to a fault and awkward in company--modern medicine would place May somewhere on the autism spectrum--May is generally content with her behind-the-scenes role. When a steamboat explosion destroys the costumes and changes the course of Comfort's career, May is forced to fend for herself for the very first time. To secure employment, she lends money borrowed from Comfort's abolitionist benefactress to Hugo Cushing, owner of a floating theater boat in need of repairs. May joins Hugo's troupe, and though her forthright tongue and literal-mindedness often land her in trouble, her skills, as well as her devotion to the enterprise, soon earn her the actors' acceptance. Drawn especially to Leo, the free black boatman who never dares disembark on the river's southern shore, and to Captain Hugo, struggling under the weight of responsibility and grief over his sister's death, May quickly adapts to life on the riverboat and blossoms beyond the confines of her cousin's shadow.

Yet all too soon, Comfort and her benefactress reappear, disrupting paradise. Demanding repayment of her loan, Mrs. Howard proposes that May work off her debt by delivering slave children to freedom on the northern bank of the river. Unable to refuse, May embarks on a series of dangerous, illegal missions that she must hide from her friends. Compassion vies with prudence as she tries to balance the needs of her charges against the safety of the troupe. At times, she must lie outright--an ever-difficult task--to protect or to deceive; at others, she must use her bluntness to misdirect or to persuade. Her struggle is keen and leads to disaster, but through it May finds courage she never knew she possessed, allies she never suspected, and a purpose she'd never imagined. Ever uneasy in her new role, May demonstrates that reluctant foot soldiers can be as effective as brash warriors in the righting of social wrongs--a much appreciated nuance that protects her from a predictable and potentially unconvincing transformation.

With its novel premise, unique setting, endearing protagonist, and gut-wrenching dilemmas, THE UNDERGROUND RIVER is a delightful, thought-compelling read. Just as the actors of the Floating Theater teach May to embrace the possibilities of believing something that isn't "true," Martha Conway convinces her readers of the marvelous power of fiction to convey truths worthy of contemplation. "There is always a surprise at the end," Hugo warns May midway through the story, and that surprise might just be this: the realization that truth originates and abides in the unrelenting conflict between imagination and reality.

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.

For more information, please visit Martha Conway’s website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.



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The Underground River

1 comment:

Passages to the Past said...

Great review, Julianne! I am so happy that you enjoyed The Underground River!

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