The Underground River

A Novel

The Underground River

The New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice

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.
  • Touchstone | 
  • 352 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781501160202 | 
  • June 2017
List Price $26.99
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Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Underground River includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Martha Conway. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

May Bedloe, working as a seamstress for her cousin, the actress Comfort Vertue, has not known any other life. It is 1838. On the Ohio River, aboard the boat Moselle, May and her cousin are headed toward Comfort’s next theatrical opportunity when a boiler explosion results in the sinking of the boat. The two women escape with their lives and are forced to seek new employment, but May quickly learns that Comfort has chosen a separate life for herself, excluding May, as a speaker on an abolitionist lecture circuit.

Alone for the first time, May eventually finds work on a flatboat, the Floating Theatre, presenting plays in cities along the Ohio under the direction of Captain Hugo Cushing. She finally sees what it’s like to be free of living in Comfort’s shadow and discovers a sense of true community aboard. But her past—and Comfort—eventually find her. Blackmailed into transporting slaves across the Ohio, May is forced to keep secrets from the people who now mean the most to her& see more

About the Author

Martha Conway
Photograph by Noah Hawthorne

Martha Conway

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 Online Writer’s Studio and UC Berkeley Extension. She is the author of The Underground River.

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