- Publisher: Bonnier Zaffre
- Published: June 15, 2017
The Floating Theatre is an entertaining and thoughtful story about a young woman who finds herself blackmailed into helping runaway slaves.
What it’s about
The Floating Theatre is May’s story, told as a (fictional) memoir. Set in 1838 in the United States, just before the American Civil War, May works as a seamstress on board the ‘Floating Theatre’.
Drifting from town to town down the Ohio River, the travelling actors perform their show to a different audience each night – sometimes on the south side of the river (where slavery is legal); sometimes on the north side of the river (where slavery is illegal).
May is simply trying to make a living after she loses all her possessions – and almost her life – in a steamboat fire. Thanks to her effervescent actress cousin, May is blackmailed into working for the underground railroad, transporting runaway slaves from the south side to the north side of the river.
What I thought of it
I really liked this book on so many levels. First and foremost, The Floating Theatre was a pleasure to lose myself in. Martha Conway writes very likeable, colourful characters who get themselves into rather nasty fixes. Politics aside, it’s a very compelling story that I found hard to put down.
But of course, this is a book about slavery, so the politics is rather unavoidable.
Seeing the world through May’s eyes – who is clearly on the autism spectrum (the very high functioning end) – made for excellent storytelling but also an interesting perspective on the historical slavery debate. May is very literal. She makes few emotional judgements and is oblivious to much of the racial tension felt by her colleagues as they journey daily between the north and south.
Conway manages to weave a study of how average people experience major social upheaval into what is essentially 23-year-old May’s coming of age story.
Hugo, the captain of the boat, tries to explain to May that he – and the others on the boat – are not the kind of people who can change laws. He clearly disagrees with slavery, and contends that probably most people do, but their job is provide entertainment, a light relief. Nothing more.
Comfort, May’s cousin, accepts a well-paid acting gig speaking against slavery at public gatherings. But May notices that her tone is light, that Comfort can’t seem to truly imagine what it is like to be in bondage and doesn’t really care.
It seems to May that plenty of people think that slavery is deplorable but are more concerned about their personal business interests than effecting change.
And yet there is Mrs Howard, a bully who is actively campaigning for the freedom of slaves. She woos Comfort into working for her cause and blackmails May into doing the same. May wonders whether all great change is wrought by bullies while everyday ‘good’ people turn a blind eye for the sake of their own survival.
Ultimately, this is less a book ‘about slavery’ and more one about the slow and strange ways in which major social changes come about.
There are plenty of echoes in The Floating Theatre for us to listen to in today’s tumultuous times. But it’s also a really entertaining story if you, you know, prefer to turn a blind eye to all that distasteful social and political stuff…
Disclosure: I received a copy from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.
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