Book Review – The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

Title: The Floating Theatre

Author: Martha Conway

Category / Box Ticked: A book by a female author

I love a character driven novel. There’s something special about knowing you’re going to miss the presence of a fictional character in your life the moment you close the book. And boy am I going to miss May Bedloe. With the book set in 1838, she was undoubtedly on the Asperger’s spectrum ahead of her time. Honest to a fault, unable to understand sarcasm or social cues, and more comfortable in her own company than surrounded by others, I quickly found myself on her side. A talented seamstress, she finds herself a job on the famous Floating Theatre, a flatboat that makes its way down the Ohio River, stopping to perform at towns along the way. She soon manages to make herself indispensable to the troupe and in spite of herself, finds that she comes to care a great deal for her new working family.

However, it’s 1838, and the Ohio River is the natural division between the ‘free’ North, where slavery is outlawed and the South or ‘slave states’. With the Floating Theatre stopping on both sides of the river, tensions will mount and people will be forced to choose sides. Because as we know from our own experience, both past and present, when a topic of such prejudice is involved, one cannot truly remain neutral. And what’s more, a character from May’s past will use the ruse of a debt to be repaid to exploit her position on the boat, compelling her to become involved in the underground Abolitionist movement of transporting slaves from one side of the river to the other, endangering everyone who has become dear to her.  

The book is wrought with tension, although I wouldn’t call it a thriller. It’s an easy and very pleasant read. The characters absolutely bring it to life, whether you love them or hate them – apart from May, you’ll probably hate them. Life on the boat and the Ohio River are so beautifully detailed they had me wanting to delve into the history books to learn more about the era. The descriptions of slavery are accurate and enough to raise your blood pressure, without being overly sentimental and manipulative of your emotions – which I find books like this often tend to be. So, praise must go to the author for her restraint in this regard. It would be much easier to write paragraph after paragraph on the evils of slavery and have the reader in tears than to use the subtlety she did and rather get the reader thinking.

Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable book to start the year, picked for it’s beautiful cover and intriguing title, it certainly lived up to the promise.

Rating: 4/5

When you’re starting out with this challenge it’s really hard to know which box to tick because you’re not sure what else you’re going to be reading. I was really hoping there would be an ‘historical fiction’ category, but alas, no. So, I’m going with a broad category out the gate and hoping it doesn’t come back to bite me.