I have recently joined Readers First and was lucky enough to be sent the first book I requested to review, The Floating Theatre.
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Published 15th June 2017. Click to buy The Floating Theatre.
In a nation divided by prejudice, everyone must take a side.
When young seamstress May Bedloe is left alone and penniless on the shore of the Ohio, she finds work on the famous floating theatre that plies its trade along the river. Her creativity and needlework skills quickly become invaluable and she settles in to life among the colourful troupe of actors. She finds friends, and possibly the promise of more …
But cruising the border between the Confederate South and the ‘free’ North is fraught with danger.
For the sake of a debt that must be repaid, May is compelled to transport secret passengers, under cover of darkness, across the river and on, along the underground railroad.
But as May’s secrets become harder to keep, she learns she must endanger those now dear to her.
And to save the lives of others, she must risk her own …
I was drawn to The Floating Theatre as its not a period of history I know a huge deal about (and, of course, by the beautiful cover). This book isn’t one that’s going to expand on this time period a huge amount, but it is a wonderful story about what happens when you step outside of your comfort zone (perhaps an intended pun by the author?).
Set 25 years before the abolition of slavery in the Confederacy, the story is told by seamstress May Bedloe. Raised on a farm in Ohio and having spent most of her adult life as a seamstress, dresser (and, truth be told, general dogsbody) for her actress cousin Comfort, she has lived a sheltered and fairly insular life.
This changes dramatically when the Moselle, a steamer she and Comfort are travelling on, explodes with devastating consequences. The cousins are separated and Comfort is taken in by a wealthy abolitionist, Mrs Howard. When May is reunited with her cousin Mrs Howard makes it clear that May has no place in her cousin’s future and is given the money to return home.
However, a chance reencounter with an actor leads her to the Floating Theatre and a decision to join the company that will change not only her life, but her whole belief system.
May has a very candid and forthright way – her views on the world and what is right and wrong are very clear cut and she’s not afraid to speak her mind. She keeps very much to herself, with sewing a refuse from a world that she is a part of, but still very much removed from. I really liked her as a person and felt a lot of empathy towards her.
The way she views slavery is interesting, but the world back then was a very different place. May came from the North where slavery had been abolished before she was born and growing up in a small town and without modern forms of communication it’s probably not a topic that would have
been a large part of her life before she joined the Floating Theatre. The book shows that, contrary to what May believes, things are not black and white, with the abolitionists using methods almost as unscrupulous and those employed by the supporters of slavery.
Both the setting in a hot, humid summer, and the characters are beautifully written and I felt like I really knew them. It is not a fast paced novel; for the first two thirds of the books the story winds gently, much like the Ohio River on which it takes place. The main ‘action’ picks up towards the last hundred pages and I was sad when the book ended but love the way the author has left it with the possibility of May’s story continuing in a future novel.
Overall a very enjoyable read and one that I would not hesitate to recommend. I have not read any of Conway’s previous work but will be seeking it out having enjoyed The Floating Theatre so much.
About the Author
Martha Conway’s first novel, 12 BLISS STREET, was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her novel, THIEVING FOREST, won the North American Book Award for Best Historical Fiction. Martha teaches creative writing for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program and UC Berkeley Extension. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she is one of seven sisters. She now lives in San Francisco with her family.