Book Review: The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

In a nation divided by prejudice, everyone must take a side.

TheFloatingTheatreAbout the Book

Publisher’s description: When young seamstress May Bedloe is left alone and penniless on the shore of the Ohio, she finds work on the famous floating theatre that plies its trade along the river.  Her creativity and needlework skills quickly become invaluable and she settles in to life among the colourful troupe of actors. She finds friends, and possibly the promise of more… But cruising the border between the Confederate South and the ‘free’ North is fraught with danger. For the sake of a debt that must be repaid, May is compelled to transport secret passengers, under cover of darkness, across the river and on, along the underground railroad.  But 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…

Book Facts

  • Format: Hardcover
  • Publisher: Bonnier Zaffre
  • No. of pages: 352
  • Publication date: 15th June 2017
  • Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

I was drawn to this book by the description and, I have to admit, the gorgeous cover but for me the content did not live up to my expectation. What I did enjoy was the story of May and the colourful characters who make up the members of the floating theatre as they travel down the Ohio River stopping at small towns to give performances to the local people. However, I found the aspect of the book detailing May’s involvement with the ‘underground railway’ unconvincing and a rather lightweight treatment of the issues.

The author has chosen to make her protagonist, May, rather naive, uncomfortable in social situations and someone who takes everything very literally.   I was unsure if this was to help explain why May responds as she does to certain events in the narrative or to introduce into the novel a character on the autistic spectrum.  However, I did like when May finally learned to suspend her disbelief and become immersed in what she was seeing on the stage in the way Hugo, the theatre owner, hoped she would.

‘But then, rather quickly if the actors are any good, something happens and somehow you drop into the fiction of the Italian countryside, and there you are. You forget all about the people around you because the only people that exist are the actors on stage, and the only world is the world they are playing out for you. You’ve lost yourself in the fiction.’

Clearly, the same thing should happen with a book but I’m afraid, for me, it did not on this occasion because I was frequently coming across things I found implausible or issues I felt were treated too lightly. If you want an entertaining story set on a floating theatre in 19th century America then this is a book to enjoy. The story is well told and there is a lot to like about it.  However, if you want to understand the realities of slavery, the abolition movement and the underground railway, then I think you need to look elsewhere.  To be fair to the author, maybe this was not the intention of this book.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Bonnier Zaffre, in return for an honest review. [The book is published under the title The Underground River in the US.]

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In three words: Enjoyable, light, unconvincing

Try something similar…The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

MarthaConwayAbout the Author

Martha Conway is the author of Thieving Forest, Sugarland, and 12 Bliss Street, which was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. She’s received several awards for historical fiction, including the North American Book Award. Her short fiction has been published in the Iowa Review, the Carolina Quarterly, The Quarterly, Folio, and other journals.  Martha teaches creative writing for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program and UC Berkeley Extension.  Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Martha is one of seven sisters. She currently lives in San Francisco.

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