Monday, September 18, 2017

The Underground River

Title:  The Underground River
Author:  Martha Conway
Publication Information:  Touchstone. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1501160206 / 978-1501160202

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "When the steamboat Moselle blew apart just off its Cincinnati landing, I was sitting below deck in the ladies' cabin, sewing tea leaves into little muslin bags and plotting revenge on my cousin Comfort for laughing at me during dinner."

Favorite Quote:  "We want to believe a story is true. We use our imagination to convince ourselves. We can't help it."

Much history has been written of the underground railroad, an informal networks of home and individuals that provided a path for those escaping slavery in the United States. So, the premise of this book about following a similar path on the "underground river" in the 1800s intrigues me.

History also tells of numerous, courageous abolitionists who risk everything for their beliefs that slavery always has been and always will be wrong. The premise of this book about a woman who becomes a coerced helper in this endeavor intrigues me. May gets involved in the underground journey because she has a debt to pay; she have never been exposed much to or thought much about the horrible institution of slavery. The idea of following on her journey of learning and her ultimate belief in what she is doing intrigues me. The potential for a story of an awakening intrigues me.

All of this, of course, is from the book description. That description and the cover are what lead me to pick up this book. Unfortunately, the book does not deliver what I expect, and I end the book disappointed. Based on my expectations, I am not the reader for this book.

Primarily, I expect a story of slavery - those who wish to perpetuate it, those who hope to escape it, and those who help along the way. That story is in the book, but it does not enter the book until almost half way through. The first half of the book is about a riverboat theater and the cast of characters who call it home. There is a brewing love story, descriptions of the riverboat and theater cultures, and the stories of relationships and conflicts that arise living in such close quarters.

The story centers around May, who joins the riverboat theater after she is essentially abandoned by her cousin Comfort Vertue (yes, that is the name). The key character trait stressed about May is, "I can be very literal ... when I talk ... I say what I think." This is further elaborated into the fact that May thinks herself incapable of lying. This, of course, is put to the test as she gets involved in the underground river. The only issue is that this trait is stressed over and over again. It is stressed not through actions, but essentially repeated many times over in words. After while, my reaction is that I get it. May is literal. Move on. Tell me something else.

That leads to my third issue in the book. It tells a story. That's what a book is supposed to do, right? Yes, up to a point. However, the books that pull me in are the ones that don't seem to tell the story. Rather, the characters appear to be living the story. This book, for me, never reaches that point. Hence, I am never fully engaged in the characters or the plot. That, to me, is disappointing for a book whose premise holds such promise.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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