Martha Conway’s ‘The Underground River’ [EXCERPT]

Loading food on the Ohio

Cruising in a steamboat along the Ohio River, an actress and her cousin travel the border between the free North and the slave-holding South. (Photo by suemon123, Flickr)


Having lived along the banks of the Ohio River for more than a decade, I frequently heard stories about the Underground Railroad and how it ran through the area in the midst of the Civil War. Visitors to Cincinnati can learn much about this history by visiting the Harriet Beecher Stowe House (she’s the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center downtown (a visit here will change your life!). But until you can make the trek to one of these venues, you can lose yourself in the pages of an incredible new book by Martha Conway, The Underground River. To whet your appetite, here’s an exclusive excerpt from chapter one. Enjoy! —Jathan

Martha Conway's THE UNDERGROUND RIVER Blog Tour

April 25, 1838, Cincinnati, Ohio

AS I CUT MORE muslin into squares, I could hear the steam on the boat rise to an unusual pitch while we waited for the newcomers to board. Later I heard that the captain of the Moselle was overly proud of his vessel, which had recently set a record for the quickest journey from Pittsburgh, and that on this particular day he wanted to beat the steamboat Tribune to the next landing. The new passengers pushed their way onto our crowded vessel, the captain raised his arm, and we were off, hoping to make up the time. But the wheel of the Moselle did not even make one full rotation when all four boilers burst at the same time with a sound like a full stockade of gunpowder all exploding at once.

It was a noise I felt like a hit. For a moment it seemed as though the air itself had cracked open and the boat lurched sharply, causing all of us to fall from our chairs. The unlit oil lamps crashed to the floor, and above us the chandeliers swung crazily as everyone in the room tumbled toward the bulkhead. My face swept over someone’s gown and I was momentarily pinned by the elderly woman who wanted to go to Malvern.

“What’s happened?” she asked in her old, feathery voice.

“She’s blown!” someone cried.

The boat lurched and stopped. For the first few minutes all any of us could do was try to stand up and help others get up, too. Everyone was saying the same thing: “Are you hurt?” “No, are you?” The old woman who wanted to go to Malvern was hugging her elbow. “Are we sinking?” she asked me. Without waiting for an answer, she said, “We must get to the deck before we go under.”

Her cap had been partially knocked back and I saw that her shiny gray ringlets were fake, sewn onto the inside of the cap, and that her real hair was wispy and scarce. Although there were easily fifteen of us in the room, after the explosion my world shrank to the two or three people around me. Somehow the Malvern lady and I and another woman with her child made it our business to help each other. The air in the room was dangerously smoky and my ears hurt from the sound of the blast, but the walls, I noticed, were still level.

“Is the boat on fire?” the woman with the child asked.

“Let’s get up on deck,” I told her. “Surely some boats will come to come help us.”

My voice seemed to come from my ears and everything looked like it was outlined in black: the doorframe, the edge of the steps. We were all trying to get out of the cabin now, and for the moment everyone was still orderly, although later I found bruises on my arm that I couldn’t account for, sharply yellow and round as buttons. In all this time I did not think of Comfort—that’s how dazed I was. I thought only of myself, the Malvern lady, and the lady with her child. But once we got up to the deck we were separated, and I don’t know if in the end they were saved or not, if the elderly lady ever got to Malvern, or if the mother drowned with her child.

On the deck I was pushed all the way to the rail by people coming up behind me, and when I finally could stop and look around, I saw that our situation was even bleaker than I had imagined. There were still several hours of daylight left; that was one good thing. But the upper deck of the vessel in front of the side wheels had been blown to splinters. Anyone unlucky enough to be standing there when the boilers exploded had almost certainly been killed, and I could see a dozen charred bodies floating in the river. So far there were no boats coming out to save us, although where I stood, on the lower deck behind the wheels, was crowded with people scanning the banks.

I searched for my cousin in the throng but could not immediately spot her. One man, someone in uniform, was trying to give directions: ladies here, gentlemen there. He had a moustache like wet straw and a blue coat, and his stiff collar was spattered with blood. I’m not sure anyone was paying him attention. It was hard to know what to pay attention to. Without steerage, we were drifting with the current, moving farther and farther away from the Ohio embankment. Kentucky, on the other side of the river, was even farther away. A dry, gunpowdery smoke hung above us, and I could see several fires burning in the bow of the ship.

How long could we remain afloat? That’s what people were asking each other in high, frightened voices, and there was a good deal of jostling as people tried to move as far back from the front of the boat as possible. Some of the wounded in the river were trying to climb back on board, and, looking down, I saw a man’s burned hand, unattached to a body, in our wake.

My stomach turned over. “Comfort!” I shouted.

The hand had an emerald ring on its pinkie finger.


The man in the blue uniform said sharply, “Keep calm.” He had a thunderous voice, and even just speaking it carried farther than my shout. A moment later the boat, which had been drifting toward Kentucky all this while, stopped abruptly as if it had caught on something. Everyone turned and looked out to see what it was.

For a moment, nothing. Then the boat tipped. Only a slight tip, but we all felt it. Leaning back instinctively as though my body could right this imbalance, I felt a powerful urge, like a trapped animal, to get away, to be elsewhere. On the Kentucky side of the boat people began to shout, and on the Ohio side there was a lot of shoving and movement. I gripped the railing hard every time a person pushed against me in their effort to cross to the other side, where, anyone could see, the situation was no better. I turned my deaf ear toward Kentucky and watched the crowd on the Ohio side swell and pulse like a heart. Sweat ran in a thin line down my spine. It had been a warm day, but the fires on the bow made the air positively hot.

People began to panic and jump into the river. A few feet away from me a man stripped off his clothes and dove into the water holding his wallet in his teeth. Seconds later a young woman jumped in after him fully clothed. She never resurfaced.

Dov’é il mio papa?

I looked down. A girl in a clean brown-checked dress was looking up at me. She was Italian and must have mistaken me for Italian. It’s happened before—my black hair and black eyes. I could see faint lines where her hem had been let down, and there was a small cross-stitched patch near her shoulder. Comfort was twice in an Italian operetta, so I was able to reply, “Non so.” I don’t know. The girl was eight or nine years old and she held her hands in front of her like a supplicant or someone in prayer.

To my right I heard another loud splash as someone else dove into the water. Besides the burned bodies from the initial explosion, the river was now littered with a second front of corpses: foolish women like the one I’d seen jumping into the water a few moments before without regard for their boots and their heavy dresses, their mutton-shaped sleeves floating out at their sides, their fleshy arms and legs hidden beneath yards of sodden cloth—striped, burgundy, checkered, a few tartans, some of the colors more visible than others. There were drowned men, too, a few of them faceup. The water near the boat had become very crowded with bodies both dead and alive, although the deck didn’t seem any less populated. Where were the barges to pick us up? All I could see were a row of warehouses on the waterfront and tall factory chimneys behind them. Although the Ohio River is almost a thousand miles long, it’s only a mile across at its widest, and we were more or less in the middle of it. A few men on the shore had waded into the water and were trying to reach the first set of people swimming for land, but still I could see no boats.

Every one of us would live or die on our own; I understood that now. A woman a few feet away from me began to scream, and the noise was like glass breaking inside my ear. The front half of the boat, still aflame in parts, was tipping in small, jerky stages into the water. In a quarter of an hour we would be completely submerged, but it was the scream that finally spurred me to action. The little Italian girl was searching my face as if to say, What now?

I looked again for Comfort—I shouted her name again—but it was useless: there were too many people, and I could not think clearly. When I glanced down I saw that I was still holding the pair of fabric scissors I’d been using when the boilers exploded. Had I been holding them this whole time? I couldn’t feel them in my fingers.

I knew one more piece of Italian: “Io mi chiamo May,” I said. Then in English: “What is your name?”

Mi chiamo Giulia.”

“Good,” I said. “All right, Giulia. Look. I have a pair of scissors here, do you see? I’m going to cut your dress off. We don’t have time for all these buttons. We need to cut off our clothes so they don’t drown us.” I looked at the riverbank again. I had swum across the Tiffin River near my girlhood home many times, and it was about as wide as where we were now from the shore. My mother taught me to swim, and it was something I did better than anyone else, even Comfort. When I was swimming, all the noise of the world receded and I was alone with the feel of water like silk against my skin. I liked that feeling. I thought I could do it.

Giulia’s eyes were wet with fear but she didn’t cry, and although she opened her mouth to put her tongue between her lips, she made no sound when I began to cut her dress off, starting from her small pointed collar and proceeding down. The noise around us was getting louder, both wailing and shouting, and a group of women had knelt down with their foreheads on the railing and were praying aloud. Occasionally hot cinders from the bow fires floated back onto the deck, burning our hands and faces. I couldn’t take a deep breath for fear of them. After I was finished cutting the girl’s dress off, I began cutting off my own.

When we were both in our muslin shifts, I tucked my father’s pocket watch, which hung from a silver chain around my neck, under the fabric. Then I looked for a place to ease our way into the river. If we jumped, we would go down a long way before coming up again, and Giulia might panic. Other people were climbing down the port side of the boat—their feet on the window ledges, then the latticework, then the edge of its muddy hull—and after looking for a better way and finding none, I did the same with the girl holding on to my neck.


The New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice

Martha Conway's THE UNDERGROUND RIVER - Credit Touchstone


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.


“Creating a perfectly straight seam finds echoes throughout the book in plot devices and metaphors, even in saving souls, and it may come as a surprise how lively and sustaining this lost art can be. Twain has his ‘Life on the Mississippi.’ Conway’s life on the Ohio makes you see the place, through May’s eyes, in all its muddy glory.” (The New York Times Book Review)

The Underground River is both a dear love story and a page-turning adventure about the Underground Railroad—and an unwilling participant. An extraordinary cast of memorable characters gives this book irresistible appeal while the setting on the watery boundary between North and South places them in dangerous and morally ambiguous territory. A captivating, thoughtful, and unforgettable read.” (Kathleen Grissom, author of The Kitchen House and Glory over Everything)

“It is part of Martha Conway’s gift as a writer to weave stories from the richest and most interesting periods of American history. Set on a nineteenth century floating theatre on the Ohio River, The Underground River is a riveting and atmospheric novel about slavery, betrayal and redemption, with a memorably forthright heroine, and a plot as fast flowing and twisty as the river itself.” (Louisa Treger, author of The Lodger)

“Warning: The Underground River is a page-turner. Be prepared to stay up late reading, because once you start you won’t want to put it down. From the first page to the last, Martha Conway’s novel is riveting, immersing the reader in the adventures of an unlikely heroine who finds courage, independence and love amid the social turmoil of the Underground Railroad. Vividly drawn settings, original characters, and perilous situations make this mesmerizing book one you will remember for years to come.” (Amy Belding Brown, author of Flight of the Sparrow)

“Martha Conway’s The Underground River is simply wonderful, a novel in which the women—good and bad—matter. The tale is told by young May Bedloe, who grows up and falls in love as the modest little show-boat drifts down the river between the small towns of the slave-holding South and the free North. May is pitched into the middle of the Slave vs Free drama not through conviction–though she does indeed know what’s right–but by blackmail, until eventually she musters the courage to risk everything for another woman. I loved May, and I very much hope we have not seen the last of her.” (Beverly Swerling, author of City of Dreams)

“Well-researched and gripping to the end, The Underground River is a vivid look at a pivotal chapter in American history.” (The Mercury News)

The Underground River evokes Twain in both story and setting. A compelling book that would no doubt please the Master of the Mississippi….A compelling story of a young woman who is trying to find her way in a world that, in a few years, will be ripped apart by war. A tale worthy of Twain.” (The Free Lance-Star)

“May herself is a marvelous creation, more than a little reminiscent of Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’ True Grit….You’ll root for her till the last page. Add a gentle love story and an especially sinister villain (who enters stage left, rather late) and The Underground River has the makings of a cult classic.” (Wilmington Star-News)

“Thanks to the success of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the subject of the abolition movement is popular in fiction now. Conway (Thieving Forest; Sugarland) offers a novel take on the topic, and book groups will especially enjoy the distinctive setting, the rich historical details, and the thorny issues begging to be discussed.” (Library Journal)

“Readers will profit from narrator May’s attention to detail and will appreciate the richly drawn showboat and the North-South border setting.” (Booklist)

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.

For more information, please visit Martha Conway’s website. You can also find her on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Goodreads.

By Martha Conway
352 pgs. Touchstone. $26.99

HFVBT_Logo_Banner TwitterPurchase The Underground River at one of these fine online retailers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, IndieBound and Powell’s.

The Underground River is brought to you in association with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

One Response to Martha Conway’s ‘The Underground River’ [EXCERPT]

  1. Amy Bruno says:

    Thanks so much for hosting Martha’s blog tour & featuring an excerpt from The Underground River, Jathan & Heather!

    HF Virtual Book Tours

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