Review: The Underground River, by Martha Conway
Touchstone, 2017. 340 pp. $27

May Bedloe has two serious problems, about to be multiplied by a third in this year of 1838. First, she takes care to speak the precise truth as she perceives it, and not a word more or less, refusing to countenance a lie, in herself or anyone else.

Her concrete approach to life amuses some and puzzles or puts off others, but in either case, leaves May feeling as if she’s not fit to make friends or be among people.

Secondly, she’s in thrall to her actress cousin, Comfort Vertue, who’s as self-absorbed and exploitive as they come. When Comfort isn’t abusing her younger cousin’s pliant nature, as in draining her life savings or demanding that she use her superb dressmaking skills to fix up the elder’s wardrobe, she lectures May about her character and tells her what she, May, wants.

But the cousins are abruptly sundered (and left destitute) when the Ohio River steamboat on which they’re traveling blows up near Cincinnati. All you need to know is that May saves a little girl she’s never met, whereas Comfort doesn’t even bother to let her cousin know she’s still alive, having been looking out for Number One.

Her skill at this game has led her to the home of a well-to-do abolitionist, Mrs. Howard, who promptly informs May that her presence is unwelcome. Elder cousin will now be retained as a stump speaker for the abolitionist cause, by which she’ll earn her keep; May should simply go elsewhere, right away. Home, maybe.

But home, in Oxbow, Ohio, no longer has anything to sustain May, and—you guessed it—Comfort doesn’t speak up for her. However, Thaddeus, a roguish actor of Comfort’s acquaintance, coaches May in her first lesson in lying, with which she pries twenty dollars out of Mrs. Howard, presumably for travel expenses back to Oxbow. Instead, that twenty goes to repair a certain boat in which the actor has an interest. Captain Cushing’s Floating Theater, which sails up and down the Ohio, mooring at towns where the citizenry might wish dramatic entertainment, now has a new seamstress/pianist/ticket taker.

Joseph Jefferson, a star 19th-century actor, as young Rip Van Winkle, probably 1860s or later, artist unknown (courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

No longer relegated to her cousin’s dressing room (from which Comfort often locked her out), May now lives and works among theater folk, eight of them. Consequently, her difficulties with artifice emerge and cause conflict with people who live by pretending to be what they’re not. Much humor ensues, and this unusual coming-of-age story boasts a raft (almost literally) of delightful stage types, from the acquisitive, overbearing Mrs. Niffen, whose husband never says a word, to Thaddeus, the trouper past his prime:

When I first met him, Thaddeus seemed to me like an opportunistic man with most of his opportunities behind him. For all his long yellow hair he was aging: there were small wrinkles around his eyes and laugh lines at the corners of his mouth. But he was not unattractive, and if he worried about his own prospects, he never let on. He had a way of looking straight at a woman as though he could see her hidden self and he liked it. I’d seen him look this way at Comfort whenever he wanted something from her. A loan of money, usually.

But there’s much more here. As May slowly wakes to the life of emotion and gray realities, she also wakes to slavery’s impact and the necessity to act against it. I won’t say more, except to note that her knowledge brings great danger, rendered with hair-raising vividness. And to keep the suspense, don’t read the jacket flap, which gives away too much, as though the publisher feared that potential readers would otherwise find the story lightweight.

I like how Conway has portrayed the towns along the Ohio River, whether on free soil or in Kentucky, a slave state, and how she doles out period details with a deft hand. I also admire her gift for characterization; I love tales about the theater, and these performers ring true to that lively art.

I also like how Conway refrains from granting May a full-character makeover. Our heroine learns a little, tasting the pleasures of suspension of disbelief and glimpses of human warmth. But she remains herself, ever concrete, seeking rules to live by, which seems psychologically accurate.

Comfort may be a little over the top, but there again, psychology holds sway: a masochist like May will invent reasons to bond to a narcissist, so Comfort’s excess has a purpose. I mind more that the author, though normally careful with language, occasionally uses words like feedback, which don’t fit the era, and inserts the rare modern thought pattern. But these are quibbles. The Underground River is a wonderful book, and I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.