Martha Conway - The Underground River (Corte Madera)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 - 7:00pm

May Bedloe has always lived in the shadow of her older cousin, the famous actress Comfort Vertue. May works as her seamstress—until 1838 when their steamboat explodes on the Ohio River. Though they both survive, May and Comfort must seek new employment. Comfort comes under the protection of noted abolitionist, Flora Howard, and May stumbles upon a jack-of-all-trades job on a small flatboat, Hugo and Helena’s Floating Theatre as it cruises the border between the northern states and the slave-holding southern states.

The job proves difficult at first—May’s strict compulsion to be honest is tested when she must learn to stretch the truth to promote shows—but she becomes indispensable to the troupe and Hugo, with whom she shares a deepening affection. All goes well until May sees her cousin again. Comfort and Mrs. Howard are also traveling down the Ohio River, speaking out against slavery at riverside towns. May owes Mrs. Howard a debt, and Mrs. Howard uses the opportunity to enlist May in her network of anonymous activists who ferry babies given up by slave mothers across the river to freedom. May is forced to break the law, deceive her new-found friends on the showboat, and deflect the suspicions of Dr. Early—a slave hunter who captures “ranaways” and facilitates the arrest of anyone helping them.  

As May’s involvement in the Underground Railroad expands, her secrets become more tangled and harder to keep—just as the Floating Theatre gears up 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 lie to trap those who know her best.
Though it is first-rate, entertaining fiction, The Underground River is also steeped in history and is a thought-provoking portrayal of life on the Ohio River, the often dangerous and precarious natural division between the North and the South—the free and the slave-holding states—in antebellum America.
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.


51 Tamal Vista Blvd
Corte Madera, CA 94925
The Underground River Cover Image
ISBN: 9781501160202
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Touchstone Books - June 20th, 2017

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.