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Traveling 'The Underground River' with Martha Conway

Award-winning author and Shaker Heights native Martha Conway's new novel - The Underground River - takes inspiration from a true-life tragedy.

While researching the Antebellum period before the Civil War, Conway discovered the story of the Steamboat Moselle, one of the fastest riverboats of its time.

On April 25, 1838, disaster struck the Moselle on the Ohio River near Cincinnati. 

"The captain was racing another steamboat, the Tribune. He overstocked the boilers and it exploded," Conway said.

The deadly catastophe inspires a crucial scene in Conway's novel, which sets the main character, May Bedloe, on a personal journey that forces her to make a decision about another national tragedy.

"[May] had never really encountered slaves.  She grew up near Toledo.  She didn't really have an opinion about slavery. She just hadn't really thought of it.  She was a bystander," Conway explained.

Martha Conway

May joins a traveling riverboat theater on the Ohio River, which is the border between the free states of the North and the slave states of the South.

Conway says that despite the definitive border of the mile-wide river, the beliefs of those living along the Ohio was not as clear cut.

"People were very heated in their opinions, as you might imagine.  But just because you were on the north side of the river didn't mean you were anti-slavery," Conway said.

May becomes entwined with a group of abolitionists, who smuggle babies whose mothers are slaves across the Ohio River to freedom.

May's journey of the spirit is a thought-provoking adventure as she comes to terms with her own beliefs and puts her life at risk to save others, no longer able to be a bystander.

Listen to the entire interview:  

Martha Conway's novel The Underground River is published by Touchstone.

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