Blog Book Tour | “The Underground River” by Martha Conway

Posted Wednesday, 11 July, 2018 by jorielov , , , 2 Comments


Book Review badge created by Jorie in Canva using photography (Creative Commons Zero).

Acquired Book By: I am a regular tour hostess for blog tours via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours whereupon I am thankful to have been able to host such a diverse breadth of stories, authors and wonderful guest features since I became a hostess! I received a complimentary copy of “The Underground River” direct from the publisher Touchstone (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive compensation for my opinions or thoughts shared herein.

Why I was inspired to read The Underground River:

I’ve read quite a lot of Southern Lit, especially centred around the Underground Railroad, from the emotionally numbing debut by Tara Conklin within the pages of The House Girl to the incredibly layered drama of Redfield Farm by Judith Redline Coopey and the gutting narrative of Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez – I suppose, you could say I do not shy away from stirringly dramatic narratives which highlight a particular era in our history which can be difficult to read.

Having said that, I was hopeful this new entry on a narrative I was familiar would shine a newfound light on both the era and the Underground Railroad. Similar to my bookish friend over at The Lit Bitch, there are times where I am striving to seek out new entries of thought into either the era of time I like reading about or a particular part of the historical past, which can lend well to new interpretations and new portals of thought we might not have explored previously. This is why I was tempted by the premise of The Underground River, as I thought by taking the traditional story off land and by placing it on the water, it would endear itself to be given a new opportunity to shine.

Unfortunately for me, I was not able to find the story I was seeking as you will soon find revealled. Still. I am thankful I tried to read a novel which on the offset felt like it was finding new traction in a thread of narrative I know quite a bit about – whether or not, I could personally feel attached to the story, I am presuming other readers might feel it is better suited to their bookish interests. After all, we all cannot love all the books we’re discovering as sometimes a book which doesn’t suit us might be the story someone else has been waiting to read themselves.

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Blog Book Tour | “The Underground River” by Martha ConwayThe Underground River
by Martha Conway
Source: Publisher via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

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.

It’s 1838, and May Bedloe works as a seamstress for her cousin, the famous actress Comfort Vertue—until their steamboat sinks on the Ohio River. Though they both survive, both must find new employment. Comfort is hired to give lectures by noted abolitionist, Flora Howard, and May finds work on a small flatboat, Hugo and Helena’s Floating Theatre, as it cruises the border between the northern states and the southern slave-holding states.

May becomes indispensable to Hugo and his troupe, and all goes well until she sees her cousin again. Comfort and Mrs. Howard are also traveling down the Ohio River, speaking out against slavery at the many riverside towns. May owes Mrs. Howard a debt she cannot repay, and Mrs. Howard uses the opportunity to enlist May in her network of shadowy characters who ferry babies given up by their slave mothers across the river to freedom. Lying has never come easy to May, but now she is compelled to break the law, deceive all her new-found friends, and deflect the rising suspicions of Dr. Early who captures runaways and sells them back to their southern masters.

As May’s secrets become more tangled and harder to keep, the Floating Theatre readies for its biggest performance yet. May’s predicament could mean doom for all her friends on board, including her beloved Hugo, unless she can figure out a way to trap those who know her best.

Genres: Historical Fiction

Places to find the book:

Borrow from a Public Library

Add to LibraryThing

ISBN: 9781501160202

Published by Touchstone

on 20th June, 2017

Format: Hardcover Edition

Pages: 345

 Published By: Touchstone
{imprint of} Simon & Schuster (

Converse via: #TheUndergroundRiver + #HistFic
Available Formats: Hardcover, Audiobook & Ebook

About Martha Conway

Martha Conway

Martha Conway grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the sixth of seven daughters. Her first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award, and she has won several awards for her historical fiction, including an Independent Book Publishers Award and the North American Book Award for Historical Fiction.

Her short fiction has been published in the Iowa Review, Massachusetts Review, Carolina Quarterly, Folio, Epoch, The Quarterly, and other journals. She has received a California Arts Council Fellowship for Creative Writing, and has reviewed books for the Iowa Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. She now lives in San Francisco, and is an instructor of creative writing for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program and UC Berkeley Extension. She is the author of The Underground River.

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My Review of the underground river:

We alight in a rather interesting point of perspective as we enter The Underground River, as two cousins are travelling companions and theatre girls. One prefers the stage and the other, is more comfortable with needle and thread. Of the two, the actress (of whom is quite a bit older than her cousin) never seems to find it hard to ‘act’ for an audience whether she’s on stage or off, but for her cousin, her personality has its rankling effect especially if she wants to pit the two against each other for a laugh. There is an unease between them, of where tensions can become taut if one person is sacrificed in front of others to make the other appear to be more ingenious of the two yet moreso to the point, it would appear Comfort doesn’t have the keener insight to know when a conversation has taken a more dramatic turn!

At a dinner, the topic of slavery and the Underground Railroad had been broached, yet all Comfort was interested in commenting on was the merits of another performer’s voice. She seemed to take great interest in putting her cousin in her place even when there were more important things at hand than a petty bout of rivalry flaring between the girls. Not to lose sight of how harrowing this opening bridge is for those of us who are not quite prepared for what happens to the riverboat, I was quite impressed by how suddenly the focus shifted. The horror of the boat starting to sink reminded me of why Titanic is as gutting as a film as it is to watch and why all boats which become submerged are a dramatic event. This particular entry into the horrors of watery graves and the fight for life whilst a ship is still above water is dearly difficult to read through due to the nature of how Conway approached telling her tale.

Ms Conway approaches life on the river in a unique fashion – as rather than starting slowly to build into the climax of her plot, she rather enjoys delivering you into the height of the drama early-on, where you can feel the height of what is happening alongside her characters. This is inclusive to the politics of the hour and the full understanding of how despite the ordinariness of travelling by rivers, even out of the ordinary routine of this transportation, you can get surprised by how quickly your fates can become altered.

For the faint of heart, you might want to take heed that there are a lot of descriptive passages about the dead and how they are found in the river itself. At first, I didn’t feel this was overly done but then, in some moments, I felt it was getting to be a bit much for even me to read about as there apparently are many different ways to be crafty and descriptive about how the dead (or rather, parts of ourselves) can be described. In point of truth, there is no easy way to set the scene unless you gloss over the horrific way in which the people on the boat died and were thrown into the river – either by the first explosions or by the fright of staying aboard for rescue which never felt like it would come.

You can place yourself inside that kind of horror, especially the emotional reactions – of how long do you stay to be seen and rescued vs how long does it take you to motivate yourself to be your own hero and save your own life? Conway does a great job of ebbing out all of these emotions and showing you the realities of being a survivor of an explosive scene on the river where life and death are cousins of truth. The line between them daringly thin and the ways in which one life is spared and another is taken is not meant to be fully understood.

After the accident, the pacing picked up quite quickly – so much so, I was a bit confused by the sudden marriage of Comfort, May’s cousin who seems to think only of herself and not of May – not because it felt out of character for Comfort to marry in haste, but rather because it seemed a bit out of sequence with the story! Although, in retrospect, I suppose for a woman like Comfort who only wanted to look after her own affairs and find the easier way round a living wage and income to support herself, a hasty marriage might be an appealing offer? To me, it seemed the girls’ were still in a position to remain single and to champion the larkspur adventure they were engaged in at the time of the doomed riverboat’s accident.

Most of the folly resolves around May’s inability to lie, of how persuasive people are around her to choose her own destiny for her rather than to allow her to sort out her own future on her own terms. Even Comfort was sidelining her in many regards, forcing her to make choices she might not have made if Comfort hadn’t kept certain company and had walked a different path than they had originally hashed out to walk together. The confusing bit there is how both girls’ were shifting and altering what they wanted out of life nearly inside each chapter! You get a rhythm for the story to take you off in one direction, only to be altered, changed and re-envisioned in a new chapter.

At one point whilst I was reading the story, I had to back-read the last chapter, as I was quite certain where I was currently in the story was not where I had been a short bit ago! Although I felt a bit jarred by how the perception of where I was heading in the story was being edited as I read how it was being revealled, the curious bit to note is that I wasn’t entirely sure if I was enjoying the threads of the Underground Railroad. There was a tone issue for me – on one hand, this was a novel supporting the railroad’s efforts to free the slaves and on the other hand, for whichever reason, it seemed to carry a different tone entirely.

One thing which was difficult was to observe how more than one character was simply out for themselves and only wanted to entice a connection to someone else if they felt they could get something out of them in the end. Although, this kind of behaviour is known and is quite popular to be observed, it is a bit crazy to think a novel could be populated by such a large degree of these individuals as it’s hard to find your way anchoured to one character in particular. I feel that is the downfall of the story, really, is finding which character is the fuell to the heart of the novel.

I couldn’t quite say I was emotionally connected to May, as she wasn’t yet developed in the first quarter of the novel to lead me to feel I understood her motivations. She was dearly attached to Comfort even if Comfort was not the best influence on her person and that was also a bit of fly of annoyance for me – even when May could breakaway from Comfort, her first instincts were to remain by her side or find a way to resume where they had left off with each other. I also couldn’t sort out why the politics of the day were threading in and out of the dramas between the girls’ as both of them had other interests rather than champion a cause so many were supporting in their own rights.

I suppose part of me felt the narrative felt a bit false and off-putting, as I’ve read many narratives about this topic and have felt many compelling reactions to the ways in which those stories were reavelled. This novel, however, was simply not my cuppa tea. The most emotional takeaway for me was when the riverboat went down – those scenes and the descriptions of what was left floating in the water finding it’s final resting place in the riverbed – the brutal imagery and the gutting reality of what was occurring as quite captivating as you simply couldn’t steal your eyes off the pages. What came shortly thereafter, however, was a quagmire of narrative context which never seemed to find it’s proper footing. At least, not for this reader, as I was soon tired to trying to understand the purpose and the point of feeling any connection to either May or Comfort.

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This blog tour is courtesy of:

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours - HFVBT

Follow the Virtual Road Map by visiting the blog tour route:

The Underground River blog tour via HFVBTs
 I look forward to reading your thoughts & commentary!
Especially if you read the book or were thinking you might be inclined to read it. I appreciate hearing different points of view especially amongst readers who gravitate towards the same stories to read. Bookish conversations are always welcome!

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{SOURCES: Book cover for “The Underground River”, book synopsis, author biography, author photograph of Martha Conway, the tour host badge and HFVBTs badge were all provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours and used with permission. Post dividers badge by Fun Stuff for Your Blog via Pure Imagination. Tweets were embedded due to codes provided by Twitter. Blog graphics created by Jorie via Canva: Book Review Banner using (Creative Commons Zero) Photography by Frank McKenna, 2018 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge banner and the Comment Box Banner.}

Copyright © Jorie Loves A Story, 2018.

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About jorielov

I am self-educated through local libraries and alternative education opportunities. I am a writer by trade and I cured a ten-year writer’s block by the discovery of Nanowrimo in November 2008. The event changed my life by re-establishing my muse and solidifying my path. Five years later whilst exploring the bookish blogosphere I decided to become a book blogger. I am a champion of wordsmiths who evoke a visceral experience in narrative. I write comprehensive book showcases electing to get into the heart of my reading observations. I dance through genres seeking literary enlightenment and enchantment. Starting in Autumn 2013 I became a blog book tour hostess featuring books and authors. I joined The Classics Club in January 2014 to seek out appreciators of the timeless works of literature whose breadth of scope and voice resonate with us all.

"I write my heart out and own my writing after it has spilt out of the pen." - self quote (Jorie of Jorie Loves A Story)

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Posted Wednesday, 11 July, 2018 by jorielov in 19th Century, Bits & Bobbles of Jorie, Blog Tour Host, Historical Fiction, Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, Inspired by Stories, Simon & Schuster

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2 responses to “Blog Book Tour | “The Underground River” by Martha Conway

    • You’re welcome, Ms Bruno!

      I wished I could have connected more with the plot of this story – I love hosting for you, even if sometimes I find a story is harder to connect to the message the author left behind for me, I appreciate the opportunities you’ve given me to seek out those authors and the stories their writing.

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