ALL I KNEW AT FIRST was that I wanted my next novel to have something to do with theatre — early American theatre, since I’m currently on a nineteenth-century kick.
I got lucky. On the very first day of doing research, as I paged through a crushingly large volume called Theater in America, I came upon a reference to an Englishman named William Chapman. Chapman was a professional actor who had been trained at the Covent Garden Theatre in London. In 1831, Chapman came to America with his family, found the theatre scene there wanting, and built himself his own “floating theatre” — a flatboat with a stage and benches nailed to the deck.
The boat was a just a long, flat barge (no sail, no steam engine), but Chapman poled it down the Ohio River, landing in the little towns on either side of the water and performing shows every night but Sunday. Most fortunately, Chapman had a wife and eight children with him, all of whom acted, played musical instruments, and sang.
Basically, the Chapmans were a Victorian Partridge Family. Only on a flatbed boat instead of a school bus.
I haven’t spent a lot of time on boats, except for elementary school field trips on “The Good Time II” in Cleveland, where I grew up. That was on the Cuyohoga River, the one that caught on fire. (The Ohio River has not, to my knowledge, ever caught on fire.) So it’s not surprising that I came across a lot of boat terms I didn’t know.
Broadhorns, sweeps, and gougers—these are all kinds of poles or oars.
And there were a lot of names for ill-placed trees:
- Snags — dead trees in the water (floating or otherwise)
- Deadfall — a tree blown down by the wind
And some fun slang:
- Arkansas toothpick — a large, pointed dagger used by river men
- Grease hunger — to be hungry for meat
- Holler calf rope — to surrender (I still don’t understand that)
Sadly, I couldn’t use all the slang I found for fear the text would begin to sound like the Song of the South ride in Disneyland. But the variety of boats—the keelboats, the passenger steamers, the packet steamers (think UPS trucks on the water), the sailboats and canoes, the rafts and barges—suddenly I had the sense of a crowded, watery highway.
And, of course, one riverboat theatre on a flatbed boat. That was where my character, May Bedloe, ended up.
If you were the Victorian version of The Partridge Family, you might have some fun, crazy antics (instigated by a boy named Danny) that almost but didn’t quite ruin your next show. In 1838, though, on the Ohio River, things were a bit more serious. To the north of the river lay Ohio and Indiana and Illinois; to the south was Virginia and Kentucky. Free states and slave states, with only one watery highway between them.
I decided that in this novel I needed to explore that conflict, too.
Next up: Runaway slaves and steamboats