Reviewed by Bev Scott
In The Underground River, Mae Bedloe is the seamstress and all-around support for her more famous cousin Comfort Vertue. In 1838 they are searching for new opportunities in the theatre for Comfort. They have booked passage on the steamboat Moselle headed to St. Louis. But after six days on board the Moselle, it sinks on the Ohio River.
While Comfort is hired to give lectures for an abolitionist, Mae ultimately finds work with a struggling acting troupe that performs on a floating theatre. Mae makes a place for herself with the troupe helping with costumes, ticket sales and other support tasks. As she takes on more assignments, and finds acceptance from members of the troupe, her confidence grows. I enjoyed the character development in Mae who begins as a quiet and reserved subordinated cousin. She transforms into an independent competent young woman taking risks to ferry slave babies to freedom.
The story is engrossing and a “page turner.” What a surprise when Mae boldly steps on stage putting the acting troupe in danger in order to take morally correct but illegal action. I found myself cheering Mae for her boldness and moral commitment at the same time I worried about her survival. The author, Martha Conway provides a well-researched historical context of another divisive time in our history which foreshadows the bitterly fought Civil War a few decades later.
I highly recommend The Underground River.