Twenty years before the American Civil War began, there were slave catchers based along the Ohio River. This river was a natural border between North and South. It was common for runaway slaves to attempt to cross the river to the North shores, where, if they were lucky, they could escape slavery. Rewards were paid to slave catchers who intercepted these runaways.
Martha Conway has set her Historical novel in 1838. Her central character is a young woman called May Bedloe. May travelled as an assistant with her cousin, a performer, until she was asked to leave. So she found herself a job on a flat boat, which was a Floating Theatre on the Ohio River. The performers and the captain lived together on the boat, rehearsing their plays, performing at each place they tied up for the night. The characters are well rounded: May is an unusual person, who is direct and honest, a talented seamstress, who attends to the details of the costumes, as well as playing piano for the show.
Because of a previous debt, May is drawn into the world of helping slaves to cross the river. Her job is to take the rowboat and cross the river to collect a slave at night. She must do this without anyone knowing, to avoid the slave catchers when she arrives back to the North shore. The dangers to May and the slave are very real, and when she discovers her first “parcel” is a new born baby, she is determined to see it survive.
The happiness May has found in her first real home is tempered with the ever present danger of being notified that there is another parcel awaiting her. The fascinating world of the theatre, and the characters whom perform for the riverside audiences, keep us entertained; while May and her superb stitching ensure she stays a valuable member of the cast. The people on shore go about their day to day lives, without much thought of the stories of torture and enslavement that occur across the river.
The author has woven a wonderful tale around the lives and the times of the people in this story. May is an unusual and endearing character, who has never understood guile, and we share in her fears as she rows her tiny cargo to the other side of the river. Martha Conway has captured the sentiments of the times, as well as the activities at this particular place, using historical fact to authenticate her story. From people who believed that slaves, if freed, would ruin the economy, to compassionate thinkers, we see the issues of the times.
|Distributor||Allen and Unwin|