Martha Conway has lived in the Bay Area for the past 30 years. But her work as a historical fiction writer keeps drawing her back to her native Ohio.
In her 2014 novel, “ Thieving Forest,” Conway took readers deep into the wilds of Ohio’s Great Black Swamp. In her new novel, “The Underground River” (Touchstone, $26.99, 340 pages), she travels the Ohio River on a 19th-century floating theater flatboat, exploring the border between the free North and the slave-holding South as the book’s central character becomes an unlikely participant in the abolitionist movement.
In a recent interview in her home in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset, where she lives with her husband, their two children and a very friendly dog, Conway, who was born and raised in Cleveland, said that Ohio continues to be a rich source of inspiration. “It calls to me,” said the author. “It’s a place for me as a writer.”
Well-researched and vividly detailed, “The Underground River” begins with an event drawn from history – the sinking of the steamboat Moselle. The 1838 disaster, near Cincinnati, left 160 of its estimated 300 passengers dead or missing.
The novel’s central character, May Bedloe, is on the Moselle with her cousin, actress Comfort Vertue, when the boat capsizes. The two women survive, but are separated — Comfort finds shelter with crusading abolitionist Flora Howard, and May, a seamstress, finds work on The Floating Theatre, where she joins a tight-knit troupe of theater artists helmed by enterprising English director Hugo Cushing.
May is a compelling character. A skilled costume designer with an unerring eye for beauty, she becomes a valued member of the company, taking on additional work as the theater’s advance woman, pianist and accountant. She’s also unfailingly honest. “I feel a great need to give a pointedly accurate account of the facts,” she tells the reader early in the novel.
Yet, when she is asked to ferry slave babies across the river to the North, May’s open nature puts her and her newfound theater family in grave danger.
As she did with “ Thieving Forest ,” Conway meticulously researched the novel on repeated trips to Ohio (“I’m one of those people who still use 4-by-6 index cards,” she says), learning more about 19th-century life on the river. “I knew nothing about boats when I started,” says the author, adding that the Moselle disaster captured her imagination. “It struck me as a kind of Titanic story,” she said, “the story of a captain pushing his vessel to do more than it could. There were huge consequences.” She notes that steamboat culture began to wane not long after the events portrayed in the book, replaced within a few years by railroads as the preferred mode of transportation.
Conway, herself a former theater artist, was also surprised to learn about floating theaters on the Ohio. Combing through historical accounts, she found the story of William Chapman, a Drury Theatre-trained Englishman who came to America in the 1820s. “He built a flatbed boat, nailed a stage on top, and floated down the Ohio River with his wife and family,” she says. “They all sang and acted, sort of like the Partridge family.”
At the same time, Conway was reading about slavery. “Obviously, Ohio is the natural division between North and South in antebellum America,” she said. “I knew that was going to be part of the story. What really surprised me was the rationalization around slavery, in the South, but also in the North — and the practice of sharing slaves across the river.”
While “The Underground River” revisits a pivotal time for race in America, it isn’t predominantly a story about slavery.
“It’s a story about a white woman and her education about the issue – how she develops empathy and feels compelled to do something about it,” said Conway . “After last year’s election, I was looking at everything differently, and I thought this book is really about how a person goes from being a bystander to being an activist. In that way, I think it’s relevant to today.”
Will May return in a future novel? “You never know,” says Conway, who is already at work on her next book — another Ohio historical novel, this one set just after the Civil War. “She’s still very dear to my heart.”
Contact Georgia Rowe at firstname.lastname@example.org
In person: Martha Conway will read from “The Underground River ” on Sept. 13 at Book Passage in Corte Madera and Oct. 7 at Books, Inc., Opera Plaza in San Francisco
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