This story grabs the reader from the first chapter: the sinking of a steamboat on the Ohio River in 1838, based on a real life tragedy. May survives by swimming a mile or more with a little girl in tow; other passengers lose their lives and this terrifying incident is brilliantly brought to life. A seamstress, May has made her living by travelling with her cousin who is an actress. When her cousin is offered a new career as a public speaker by a wealthy abolitionist, Mrs Howard, May finds herself out of work and it is a chance meeting with another of the steamboat survivors that leads her to the Floating Theatre.
May is a great character, odd but not overly so. She cannot lie without difficulty; despite working in theatres for years she has never watched a play until Hugo, the captain of the Floating Theatre, makes her; she has a very fixed moral compass. I loved seeing how she changes over the course of the book. The theatre travels along the river, stopping at towns in the slave-owning south, and the free north, and Mrs Howard soon enlists May to help ferry runaways across to safety. This involves a lot of scheming and lying as May doesn’t know who she can trust and is not good at deception.
I really did get swept away by this story. Life on the boat is so vivid I could picture all of the characters and even those who barely speak are well-drawn. As a story about slavery recounted by a white character, Conway does well to examine attitudes through May’s experiences. She finds that her new friends are disappointingly reticent to become involved in the slavery debate. Even though they all claim to despise its existence, they’d prefer to turn away from the issue completely. As one character says to May, ‘…it’s hard to be on the wrong side of the law. Makes a fellow uncomfortable.’
Towards the end there were a few too many ‘bad omens’ for my liking – I could already guess that disaster was around the corner without it being quite so heavily hinted at (I don’t need a drowned dog to point out that with only a few chapters to go something is bound to go wrong). Other than that, this was a novel which lived up to my high expectations.
Thanks to Readers First for the free review copy.