Book review: The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

cover110731-mediumThe Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

Publication date: 15 June 2017

Genre: Historical Fiction, Women’s Fiction

Length*: 5 hours 20 minutes

(*based on the time it took me to read this title)

Published by: Zaffre

Available at:, Goodreads

My rating: 4 out of 5

Publisher’s description:

In a nation divided by prejudice, everyone must take a side.

When young seamstress May Bedloe is left alone and penniless on the shore of the Ohio, she finds work on the famous floating theatre that plies its trade along the river.

Her creativity and needlework skills quickly become invaluable and she settles in to life among the colourful troupe of actors. She finds friends, and possibly the promise of more…

But cruising the border between the Confederate South and the ‘free’ North is fraught with danger. For the sake of a debt that must be repaid, May is compelled to transport secret passengers, under cover of darkness, across the river and on, along the underground railroad.

But as May’s secrets become harder to keep, she learns she must endanger those now dear to her. And to save the lives of others, she must risk her own …

A gloriously involving and powerful read for fans of Gone With The Wind and Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway

My review:


I will be honest; as someone who has spent the last decade working in the theatre industry, I was compelled to pick up this book purely for the title. I am fascinated by the ways that the inner workings of theatre are portrayed in literature, and how these compare to my own experiences of working backstage. It does sound a little like a busman’s holiday, I will admit; reading for pleasure about something that you live and breathe every day.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was no busman’s holiday here. The theatre is not the main focus of the story at all, but instead the pleasing backdrop that facilitates May’s journey of self-discovery. She is not an actress discovering herself through the part she must play on stage, rather it is the series of experiences that she finds herself thrown into that conflict with her own comfort levels and perception of right and wrong.

The book is a delightful read, gentle and unsuspecting (like May herself), but full of grit when peanut butter hits the toast, as it were.

This book is billed as ‘women’s fiction’, which is not a genre I would normally find myself consuming with enthusiasm. I can’t help feeling that putting this book in that box is unfair because of the expectations that such a label (rightly or wrongly) puts on the story. Yes, the main character is a woman. Yes, it is a journey of discovering one’s identity as an independent woman. But, for me, that is not enough to put it in that particular box. This story follows a person who has always followed in the wake of another and is then rudely abandoned and must find the confidence to find their own path – for me, the gender is immaterial; it just so happens that this person is a woman. So, if you normally veer away from women’s fiction, don’t let this book’s categorisation put you off. You will find that there is plenty of tension and pace, and plenty of heart-stopping moments.

Aside from the growth of the main character, this book is also about the slave trade that was so prevalent in America at the time the book is set. It asks interesting questions about where ethics and moral code stand when the humane action is the illegal action. Is it ok to break the law in order to follow your own code of ethics, when you are presented with an opportunity to save someone from a situation that you feel is morally wrong? How do we feel about those who seek to profit from the immoral but legal action? Is it ok to follow the illegal but ethical action when it puts other people’s lives in jeopardy without their consent?

Reading this book was easy; the pages slid effortlessly past my eyes. I found myself making extra time to read it so I could find out what happened next. I loved it. It would make a fantastic holiday or long weekend read.

Thank you to Zaffre and Netgalley for providing me with an advance e-book of this book in exchange for an honest review.


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