The year is 1838. The tensions between the Northern and Southern states over the issue of slavery, which will ultimately culminate in the Civil War in 1861, are roiling. May Bedloe is a young, single woman working as a seamstress. She creates and repairs the costumes worn by her cousin, Comfort Virtue, an actress performing in theatres throughout the Northeastern United States. May and Comfort are travelling on the Moselle, a riverboat making its way along the Ohio River, the natural division between the North and the South. Comfort is performing in one of the riverboat shows. Over dinner Comfort laughed at May, who is contemplating sewing a pigeon feather into the back of one of Comfort’s costumes as an irritant. Before she can do so, an accident causes the Moselle to catch fire and sink. May and Comfort are separated in the chaos, but survive the tragedy. Before May locates her cousin, Comfort is hired to give anti-slavery speeches by Mrs. Flora Howard, a well-known abolitionist. Mrs. Howard explains that Comfort no longer needs costumes, therefore May is no longer needed as a seamstress, and is provided with money to purchase a ticket “home.” May does not have a home, because after her mother died she has travelled with Comfort. When an actor from the Moselle introduces May to Captain Hugo Cushing, the owner and operator of Hugo and Helena’s Floating Theatre, she loans her ticket money to him so that he can make repairs to the floating theatre. In return Captain Cushing hires May to take over some of the duties performed by his sister Helena, who died on the Moselle. Soon May finds herself ensconced on the floating theatre, creating costumes for an entire troupe of actors, accompanying their performances on the piano, and promoting the show in the towns where they dock.
But Mrs. Howard has other plans for May. She twists recent events to her own benefit and coerces May into participating in the Underground Railroad, specifically ferrying newborn babies across the Ohio River from slave states to free states. May, who has never been good at keeping secrets or telling lies, must master both skills to protect herself, her new friends and co-workers, and the lives for which she finds herself responsible.
In The Underground River, Martha Conway takes readers back to a pre-Civil War Ohio River Valley, and places them solidly in the midst of the controversies about slavery. Conway paints a revealing portrait of how limited life for a single woman could be in the early 19th century. Her clear portrayal of daily life during that time period is a reminder of how present life has changed in nearly 150 years. The characters are nicely drawn, specifically May Bledsoe, Captain Hugo Cushing, and the ship’s deck hand Leo, a free black man. The novel starts off with a bang, chronicling the sinking of the Moselle. Afterwards, the book settles into a more gradual pace, allowing for a more leisurely development of the plot and characters. It is also interesting to have the story revolve around a character who is forced into actively participating in the struggle against slavery. While the stakes are high, and several characters will pay dearly for participating in the Underground Railroad’s activities, the end of the book is surprisingly hopeful.