The Underground River

Written by Martha Conway

In her fourth novel, The Underground River, Conway tells the story of May Bedloe, the ungainly cousin of actress Comfort Vertue, who ends up being heroic in spite of herself. At the beginning of the book, May exists to sew for and serve Comfort, who is self-centered and determined to undermine any confidence May might gain. However, a boat accident changes the fortunes of both women.

Comfort is rescued by Mrs. Howard, a wealthy abolitionist who enlists Comfort to travel the country stumping for the cause. May joins a riverboat acting crew, where she puts her talents to work mending and designing costumes for the troupe as well as playing the piano on stage. She gradually comes to consider the actors as family, makes her own money, and is self-sufficient for the first time.

Unexpectedly, May and Comfort cross paths again. This time, Mrs. Howard recruits May, via means of blackmail, to help ferry slaves across the river to safety. Though reluctant at first, May is soon moved by the plight of the “packages” placed in her care. She finds her courage and sense of justice. She even finds love along the way.

This is a well-written and nicely paced novel, and readers will enjoy the descriptions of life on the river. The plotting, however, is a little weak; believing May would risk so much to pay back a debt that was never explained stretches the imagination. And May, while plucky, is a hard character for this reader to like. Yet, by the end of the book, May’s growth is satisfying, especially the way she stands up for her beliefs and herself.