The Bookends

The Underground River
By Martha Conway

May Bedloe is separated from her cousin, Comfort Vertue, when their steamboat sinks on the Ohio River in 1838. Everything they own is lost and May must search for Comfort among the survivors. May and Comfort have been traveling and working together as Comfort acts and May creates costumes for her cousin. By the time May locates her cousin, Flora Howard (a noted abolitionist) has convinced Comfort to give lectures for the anti-slavery cause. May finds work on a floating theater that cruises between northern and southern states. As May becomes a part of the theater family, she is drawn into a scheme to ferry babies of slaves across the river to freedom. May must try to balance her feelings for her new family with her dawning understanding of the situation and her ability to help people, although it comes with great risk to all.

PAM This book sounded very interesting and I was compelled to read it. There are many different angles to this story and I was drawn in immediately. Did you feel the same? Was the author able to bring you into May’s story?

BECKY A riverboat theater is a creative way to look at helping the slavery situation in the southern states. I was drawn to the story and the topic, but the first half of the book is focused on May discovering a new way of life after separating from her cousin Comfort. The title had me expecting the book to be focused on the slavery topic more than a character’s story. Maybe that’s why I struggled warming up to May. She was blunt and lacked some common social skills so it was hard for me to embrace this character. What did you think about this serious seamstress?

PAM I also struggled to connect to May’s character in the beginning. Her lack of social skills made it hard for her to make friends and even communicate with others in a time where women were expected to exhibit specific behaviors. May struggles to find a job, as she turns off prospective employers with her straightforward manner. She stumbles across a floating theater that has lost a key member to the same riverboat accident that May escaped. Here, she finds a job opportunity and a home. What did you think about this floating theater?

BECKY At the beginning of this story, the picture that I had in my mind of the floating theater just didn’t make sense so I googled some images of old floating theaters. Wow, was I surprised to see just how large these vessels were. The production must have been quite a sight to see for these small towns on both sides of the river. The movement between the North and South provided a perfect opportunity for this storyline. May has always been in her cousin Comfort’s shadow. Her life has been focused on providing Comfort with all of her needs and she received little appreciation for her dedication. May’s new job on the theater allows her to shine and be valued for the individual talents she brings to this troupe. After being so unappreciated in the past were you surprised that May went to warn Comfort of threats made against her because of her public speaking on abolition?

PAM It did not surprise me, since May seemed to be a very loyal person and still seemed to care for Comfort. However, her feelings for Comfort were complicated. On one hand, she cared for her and worried about her. On the other hand, she did not want to fall back into their normal pattern of Comfort belittling her and teasing her if May received any attention. This contradiction was apparent when May went to warn Comfort. I felt this was such an issue for May because she was finally given the opportunity to make friends and shine in her own way. Did you feel this internal struggle with May during this part of the story?

BECKY I’m not sure that I saw it as a struggle as much as I had the impression that May was a bit of a loner and was familiar with Comfort’s actions towards her so she gravitated toward that type of love. I feel that May felt obligated to Comfort and didn’t seem to be angry by her cousin’s actions. Yet, being on her own has given her a chance to see her beauty and talents, through the eyes of others so it was a blessing to be cut loose from the controlling cousin. After this meeting, May accepts the invitation to help with the abolition party. Did you find this storyline exciting and believable?

PAM First, I just have to mention how much I love the way you described May’s ability to “see her beauty and talents.” What a lovely way to express that we all have our own talents, but we don’t always recognize them! Although there were certain coincidences in the story and some eccentric characters, I did feel that the story was believable and had some excitement built in. The time period, alone, carried such dangers and challenges depending on where you were and with whom you were talking. Were you worried that her decision to join the cause would destroy her new relationships?

BECKY Yes! However, I was more concerned that she was involving and putting others in danger that didn’t sign up for this risky proposition. Especially Hugo the owner of the boat and theater. She was dabbling in a situation that had deadly consequences. Speaking of Hugo, what did you think of this budding romance?

PAM This was a great part of the story! May was able to find someone that appreciated her. She didn’t have to try to be someone she was not, but could be herself. Hugo and their budding romance were a large part of what made this theater a true home for May. This was one of my favorite parts of the story. After all of the time spent doing everything for her cousin, it was May’s turn to focus on herself and her relationships. Would you read another book by this author?

BECKY This story was missing some depth for my taste but she has three other novels and they look interesting so I would possibly consider reading her work again. It’s time to move on to our April pick which will be The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash. A historical fiction novel set in 1929 during the beginnings of the fight for union support in factories.

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