I received The Underground River by Martha Conway in my new book box subscription from PageHabit. The subscription’s for Historical Fiction, which is one of the reasons I subscribed. I also love the idea of receiving “insider” annotations from the author, and these are included via Post-It notes and a short letter.
I might have picked up The Underground River without the subscription. I’ve read two other books with similar themes lately – Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines. Both of those were speculative fictional imaginings of a world where slavery remained in play. However, Conway’s book is straight historical fiction.
The main character, May Bedloe, finds herself at loose ends after the steamboat she and her actress cousin are traveling on sinks in the Ohio River. Since she has mad seamstress skills, May finds a job quickly with a troupe that travels and performs on a flatboat. More than two-thirds of the book is the story of May’s adjustment to this new life without her overbearing cousin. She must find her niche within the troupe, and is expected to do many things that stretch her comfort zone.
I liked May and the people she meets through the floating theater. Was I fascinated by them? Not at all. I found this a slow read, like a boat that’s fighting it’s way out of the mud. The characters are typical, for example you have a tough boss boat captain and theater director. There’s an ingenue, a tween, an overbearing older woman, and a foppish middle-aged man. Conway spent plenty of time letting us get to know May and her compatriots, yet I didn’t feel the character development or story were particularly rich.
I wish the Underground part of the book had happened sooner and been more absorbing. May is forced to use the boat’s travel patterns and location to ferry “packages” across the Ohio. I’m not telling you anything that’s not on the book jacket. Those secret journeys just weren’t all that suspenseful or plentiful. I wish they’d happened sooner in the story as well.
I thought the author annotations from PageHabit were underwhelming, maybe because I found the book just as so-so. I’ll keep the subscription for a few more months to see what I think. And I doubt I’ll rush to read more of Martha Conway’s work. This was a 2.5/5 star book for me. I’ll round it up to 3 because nothing annoyed me, even though that seems awfully sad.