In the Shadow of the River

Written by Ann H. Gabhart
Review by Gail M. Murray

Set on a showboat in the 1880s, in this novel we embrace bygone times when these floating theatres plied the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, bringing drama and musical entertainment to towns. The vessels were large, elaborately-decked-out rafts pushed downriver by small steamboats. Actors signed on at the start of the season, the family forming the nucleus of the show. Here it is almost a character, and a great place to hide away and disappear, as our heroine, Jacci (Jacinth) Reed, does.

At five, Jacinth (meaning rare jewel) experienced trauma which continues to haunt her adult life. A man attempted to kidnap her; she shot him, but not before he fatally wounded her mother, Irena. Before she died, they escaped to the Kingston Floating Palace, where the grown-up Jacci, billed as Princess, later sings and acts alongside her grandfather, Duke. We soon learn that her birth mother, Lisbeth, gave her up before being forced to marry Griffith Giles, whose political ambitions could not tolerate the scandal of an out-of-wedlock child. The reader fears for Jacci on the night the now-Senator Giles and his beautiful, dark-haired wife attend the show: “… the woman looked enough like Jacci to be her sister. Or her mother.”

Gabhart takes time to build Jacci’s backstory, who discovers her origins as the story plods along. Things get suspenseful when Jacci, pushed overboard, nearly drowns. After her romantic rescue, the question remains: who on the boat had pushed her? There are poignant scenes between mother and child, a sweet love story, and eclectic characters from arrogant, overly amorous Cameron to jealous acrobat/understudy Winnie; Perry, the strange ventriloquist; and Kelly, the dashing riverboat gambler.