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The Underground River

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  983 ratings  ·  242 reviews
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.

Its 1838, and May Bedloe works as a seamstress for her cousin, the
Hardcover, 345 pages
Published June 20th 2017 by Atria Books (first published June 15th 2017)
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Average rating 3.81  · 
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Diane S ☔
Aug 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
When the steamboat Moselle sinks, May and her cousin Comfort, survive when many others did not. Together for many years, Comfort on the stage, May as her seamstress, making and maintaining her costumes, their lives now take different paths. Comfort becomes the spokesman for a a woman fighting against the horrible institution of slavery. May now alone, eventually gets a job on a travelling show run on a steamboat that travels up and down the Ohio River.

In 1838, the Ohio River separated the slave
Jun 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The Ohio River was a boundary separating free and slave states in pre-Civil War Ohio. In 1838, May Bedloe, seamstress and dresser, boarded the steamboat Moselle with cousin Comfort Vertue. Comfort was traveling with May to St. Louis seeking new acting opportunities. Unfortunately, the Moselle was doomed when four boilers exploded. Chaos ensued and May, swimming to shore, was unable to locate Comfort. Days later, May discovered that Comfort was being housed by Mrs. Howard, a wealthy abolitionist. ...more
Jun 23, 2017 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: historical fiction lovers
Shelves: netgalley
Thanks to NetGalley and Touchstone for a digital copy of this book.

Martha Conway takes readers back to 1830's when tensions between North and South were beginning to fester, as abolitionists rise to criticize the actions of the slave trade. Atmosphere, historical research, interesting location, and yet this book failed to make me attach to the storyline and the characters. A really important topic, but I was bored out of my mind. Lots of readers appear to have enjoyed it, but I am going to have
Deanne Patterson
Let me start off by saying even though this is a new to me author this won't be the last book I read by, Martha Conway. The book is unlike any I have read in a long while. This book is absolutely amazing and held my attention gripped in it's claws right from the start. Taking place for the majority on a nineteenth century riverboat theater a small flatboat ,Hugo and Helenas Floating Theatre. It lazily cruises the river between the northern states and the slave owning southern states.
May is hired
Rebecca Rosenberg
Nov 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The Underground River showed a fascinating little-known aspect of American History that I found riveting. I've read books on slavery, my favorite is Cane River by Lalita Tademy, and of course I have heard of the Underground Railroad, but Martha Conway brings to life The Underground River-- hiding and transporting slaves on riverboats, to the safety of the north. And not only a riverboat, but a Show Boat, complete with flamboyant actors and sensitive musicians who traveled up and down the river, ...more
May 05, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed, netgalley
It's strange to think of a book that deals with slavery and the underground railroad as being charming, but this book really was and it was also serious and suspenseful and a very enjoyable read. A major portion of this book is about the life of a small theater company that lives and performs on a barge-like ship that travels up and down the Ohio River before the Civil War. The north was on one side of the river and the slave-owning south on the other. May Bedloe joined the company as a ...more
Katie Lumsden
Sep 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 5-stars
I absolutely loved this - a really interesting premise, and very well executed, always engaging and thoroughly reading. I love books that look at the theatre, and the combination of this with explorations of the 19th century American underground railroad was just fantastic. I'd highly recommend.
BAM The Bibliomaniac
Many thanks to Martha Conway, Touchstone, and Netgalley for the free copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.
May and her cousin, Comfort, trawl the smalltime theatres of the Pre Civil War period to make a living. Comfort acts, May sews the costumes. When a steamboat on which they are traveling catches fire they are separated each to find her own way in life.
May learns about business and family on a steamboat that hosts plays and other vaudeville type entertainment along the Ohio
Dale Harcombe
Oct 24, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I initially picked up this book because I liked the cover and the premise sound interesting. May Bedloe and her cousin Comfort Vertue are on board the Moselle when it sinks. Many lives are lost. May manages to rescue another young girl from the boat but initially cannot find Comfort. When she does, May learns their paths are about to diverge in different directions. Comfort has attracted the attention of a benefactor, Mrs Howard. Under her guidance and leaving aside her acting, Comfort takes on ...more
Jun 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was a fantastic book. Ive read so many great stories lately that Im always afraid for the next one. However, The Floating Theatre was just as amazing as its beautiful cover promised. If you arent a fan of historical fiction, I guess this is not the right book for you, but if you want to give the genre a chance, Id highly recommend this one (and Becoming Bonnie! -not that theyre remotely similar-).

As I do every time I read a book based on real facts, the first thing I did when I picked up
Roman Clodia
I had high hopes for this: gorgeous cover, theatre, history, anti-slavery... but I found this far too easy a treatment of complex issues. Our heroine seems to be somewhere on the spectrum and her forthright logic is set in opposition to the rhetoric of other characters, both the slave-owners and abolitionists. The setting is interesting, a theatrical company operating from a river boat (think Showboat), and there are plenty of Characters with a capital C, written with a kind of sub-Dickens ...more
Apr 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Loved the storytelling of this book. Because life is really kicking my ass, I haven't had much time to read. Every time I picked this up I fell into the story and forgot about my own life. The characters were so fleshed out, I absolutely felt like I knew each and every one of them. Definitely a 5 star read for me and I can't wait to check out more by this author.
Martha Conways fourth novel opens with a bang literally. April 1838: twenty-two-year-old seamstress May Bedloe and her cousin, the actress Comfort Vertue, are on the St. Louis-bound steamboat Moselle when its boilers explode (a real-life disaster) and they must evacuate posthaste. Afterwards Comfort accepts a new role giving abolitionist speeches; May takes her sewing skills on board Captain Hugo Cushings Floating Theatre, where she will be a Jill of all trades: repairing costumes, printing ...more
Nov 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Amazing Read! May is a seamstress for her cousin Comfort. When their steamboat sinks on the Ohio river they search for new employment. Comfort is hired to give speeches and May finds work on the Hugo and Helends Floating Theater. Now she is forced to repay a debt and gets caught up in the Underground Railroad transferring slaves. A vivid rich in history plot that compelled to read this straight through. I highly recommend this is you love historical fiction. Amazing story.

Dawn Ruby-BookGypsy
Sep 05, 2017 rated it did not like it
I so wanted to really love if not like this book. Sadly, it did not touch me at all. Not for a lack of effort. In the beginning, I actually was into the story, the time period, and location. Yet, as the story progressed; I found none of the characters really struck a cord with me both emotionally or vocally. However, I kept reading, hoping that what spark I did find and enjoyed in the beginning would come back again for me. After getting almost half way into the story, I put it down and walked ...more
Anne Parrish
Jan 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Twenty-two year old May Bedloe is making her way in the world serving as a seamstress for her cousin, Comfort, an actress, when the steamboat theyre sailing down the Ohio River on explodes and sinks. Its 1841, and the river divides the North from the South, free states from slaveholders. May doesnt think much about slavery at this point in her life, though after the accident, when she finds employment with a floating theater that stops on both sides of the river, the thought of being someone ...more
Karen Kay
I received this ARC from in exchange for a review. I unknowingly requested and received copies of this book under two different titles, The Underground River and The Floating Theatre.

Set aboard a nineteenth century riverboat theater, May works as a seamstress. Traveling up and down the Ohio River and stopping in many different towns, May becomes involved in rescuing and transporting run away slaves to the north.

The majority of the book is about May working and living on the
Touchstone Books
Nov 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
We've all fallen in love with Martha Conway's unfailingly honest, somewhat naiive, charming narrator May. She is an absolute gem.
3.5 stars. 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 Mays involvement with the underground railway unconvincing and a rather ...more
Jun 24, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Conway shares life along the Ohio River in 1838 long before the Civil War would abolish slavery. The Ohio River was a natural boundary between free and slave states. Life along the river was busy from merchants to Steamboats and flatboats transporting goods and people back and forth between the northern and southern states.  Here networks worked to help slaves find freedom, bounty hunters searched for runaways, and slave trade took place. 

Our protagonist May Bedloe a seamstress for her
In a nation divided by prejudice, everyone must take a side.

Travel to the locations in the novel: Booktrail it to Ohio


This is a very unique premise and setting for a story. The daily life on a showboat floating on the Ohio river, gives a real insight into the coastal small villages and the people who worked on the border of such a political divide. Ive read other titles about what went on during the times of the underground railway and found this to be a unique angle with the boat moving up
Barbara (The Bibliophage)
Excerpted from a longer review at

The main character, May Bedloe, finds herself at loose ends after the steamboat she and her actress cousin are traveling on sinks in the Ohio River. Since she has mad seamstress skills, May finds a job quickly with a troupe that travels and performs on a flatboat. More than two-thirds of the book is the story of May's adjustment to this new life without her overbearing cousin. She must find her niche within the troupe, and is expected to do
Apr 13, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: netgalley
I was able to read a copy from Netgalley in exchange for a review, thank you!

I found this to be a solid 4 star read. I was initially attracted to the setting, a floating theater, how cool is that?! I enjoyed the story as well and felt the characters were wonderfully depicted. I had no idea where the story was going and it got more and more interesting as it neared the end. It also seems to be titled The Underground River.
Mel (Epic Reading)
Usually when I rate a book 5 stars I immediately know why. Otherwise I default to 4 stars as I usually have a critique or two. The Floating Theatre is a bit different in that I really, really enjoyed it; but wasn't immediately convinced it was a 5 star book. But upon a couple hours of contemplation I've realized I cannot come up with any major flaws. Therefore 5 stars it is!

This is an enchanting and enjoyable book. Now I know you're thinking... um... Mel isn't it about slavery? Well yes, but
Jul 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
From the moment I read the book description, I wanted to read this book. Martha Conway created a cast of interesting characters and introduced me to the concept of a floating theatre that traveled along the Ohio River entertaining the folks of the small towns along the river. The UK version of this book is titled The Floating Theatre and I think it's a better title than The Underground River because the story revolves around the life of actors and theatre.

I must admit the first third of the
True Rating 3.5 stars!

The Underground River is a story set in the late 1830s. The abolitionist movement was in its infancy and it would be years before the 13th Amendment to the Constitution the Emancipation Proclamation would be ratified. The story is a memoir told through the lens of the main character May Bedloe. This is not a book that really focuses on the abolitionists, the underground railroad or the realities of life for slaves in the south.

May was born to older parents and was
Nov 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: ppl who like historical romances
Recommended to Stephen by: Lizbeth
A great discovery by my wife. She had an hour to kill in the Port Authority, went to the bookstore there and liked the title of this. This book started slowly when it was my turn, seeming about a proud, introverted orphaned Jane Eyre type who's only interested in dressmaking. I nearly quit. The pace quickened after first quarter. Protagonist May was jolted into an extroverted active life when pressed into service on the Ohio River section of the underground railroad. It accelerated to a long ...more
Damaris Tonner
Jun 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Oh my stars! I have a lot of feelings for this book, so buckle up if you want to hear them.

This is one of the best fictional books I've ever read. Legit, I'm not even joking. I've never read Conway's works before, but I love 1) theatre and 2) learning about the Underground Railroad, so this was a win-win for me.

First of all, The Underground River's characters are really superb. May Bedloe is unlike any other character I've ever read - high praise, especially for a historical fiction book. Her
LAPL Reads
Jun 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
The year is 1838. The tensions between the Northern and Southern states over the issue of slavery, which will ultimately culminate in the Civil War in 1861, are roiling. May Bedloe is a young, single woman working as a seamstress. She creates and repairs the costumes worn by her cousin, Comfort Virtue, an actress performing in theatres throughout the Northeastern United States. May and Comfort are travelling on the Moselle, a riverboat making its way along the Ohio River, the natural division ...more
Jun 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have to say I was drawn in by the gorgeous cover of this book. And when I first started to read it I wasn't sure if it was for me. How utterly wrong I was!

May Bedloe works as her cousins seamstress in the theatre. When the boat they're travelling on has an explosion and a catastrophic mortality rate, May and her cousin Comfort end up parting ways.

May finds work as a seamstress on a floating theatre that travels the Ohio river. Set before the American civil war, slavery is still very much in
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Martha Conway is the author of four novels including The Underground River (Touchstone 2017), which was a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice. She's received several awards for historical fiction, including the North American Book Award for Best Historical Fiction. Her short fiction has been published in the Iowa Review, the Carolina Quarterly, The Quarterly, Folio, Massachusetts Review, ...more

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