This sumptuous, epic Young Adult novel is firmly rooted – with its glorious prose and tone – in the Deep South of 1838.
It’s a nuanced, wonderful Gone-With-The-Wind type adventure that conjures up sticky, humid nights laced with fear and fun. The Floating Theatre is, in fact, a Jane Austen novel set in America and written stunningly by Martha Conway in the modern day.
It follows the journey of young May Bedloe, an incredibly well painted, multi-trait character, who is quite a forlorn individual. She lives in the shadow of her famous actress cousin, Comfort, because May is the one who sews and creates all Comfort’s stage costumes. But May never acts herself, she always just keeps to herself.
That is, until a tragedy literally blows them apart. An explosion on board a steamboat they’re both travelling on, on the Ohio River (a horrifying incident that’s depicted in haunting, action-packed detail), separates them. Both Comfort and May survive but are now on different life paths.
Comfort becomes a slave abolitionist, and May joins a floating theatre travelling down the rivers of southern America performing plays and musicals to the many tiny towns that exist on its banks. Aboard the boat, despite May being quite a socially awkward soul who has trouble keeping her mouth shut in any situation, she meets lots of friends and becomes the theatre company’s seamstress and promoter.
There are many wonderful, realistic scenes where May learns tricks of the actors trade, discovers about how the North-South divide makes life very difficult for people, and she meets many wonderful, strange and intriguing characters along the way. All this leads up to Comfort coming back into her life – with her new uptight, abolitionist companion Mrs Howard who is incredibly unlikeable – and persuading May to help them smuggle slave babies out of the south, across the river and into the north to free them.
May risks her life, and the potential of being hung, to rescue many babies to repay a debt to her cousin. That is, until her secret is out and the theatre company threaten to turn her in as a devilish slave hunter closes in to catch her in the act. Another terrible disaster occurs (I won’t say what it is, so as not to spoil the story) and May believes that her love – the boat’s British captain, Hugo – is lost forever.
You’ll have to read The Floating Theatre yourself to find out just how May is changed forever by the end of the story. And, truly, what a stunning story it is.