This is a difficult book for me to review, and that's not intended to say anything bad about the book. Let me explain: "Show Boat" is one of my favorite movies, I consider it one of my "comfort films" that I like to watch when I am ill or troubled, or if it just happens to come on the classic movie channel during my waking hours. I have seen both the 1936 (Irene Dunne and Allan Jones) and 1951 (Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel) versions so many times that the story, as told in the films, is deeply set in my mind, so reading the book was a strange experience, even though I know perfectly well and am never surprised that movies and the books they are based on often vary substantially, sometimes only the title stays the same.
"Show Boat" spans the 1870s to the 1920s and tells the story of the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre and its denizens. For those unfamiliar with the term "show boat," in the heyday of paddle steamer riverboats show boats plied the Mississippi River docking in at rustic and backwoods towns that didn't have their own theatres. It was a huge event for the residents of these little towns, something they looked forward to all year and saved up their hard earned pennies for. They would hear the sprightly notes of the calliope that signaled the show boat's arrival and come running to buy their tickets and watch the players and band parade through the town to drum up trade. The program usually consisted of a popular melodrama of the day, staples of the Victorian stage like "East Lynne," "Tempest and Sunshine," or "Lady Audley's Secret," something with a beautiful heroine bedeviled by a sneering mustachioed villain, and afterwards there would be a variety show of musical and comedy acts.
Edna Ferber peoples the Cotton Blossom with a wonderful cast of characters. Jovial, smiling, kindhearted Captain Andy Hawks and his polar opposite wife, the dour, unsmiling, shrewish Parthenia who is a sworn enemy of anything frivolous or fun, and their daughter Magnolia, pretty and strong-willed, with a mind of her own. And two husband and wife acting teams, Julie and Steve, and Elly and Schultzy, both of whom have their own troubles.
When a member of the crew with an unrequited crush on Julie, despite repeated warnings and a trouncing from her husband, creates mischief by revealing Julie's most deeply guarded secret to the local sheriff, Magnolia finds herself cast as the leading lady after Julie and Steve's sudden and dramatic departure. This is supposed to be only a temporary, stop-gap measure pending the arrival of a replacement actress, but Magnolia finds she enjoys acting and becomes quite the success. The abrupt departure of another cast member, who had been filling in for Steve and playing opposite Magnolia as leading man, forces Captain Andy to take desperate action and hastily engage shabbily genteel, down on his luck, but nonetheless breathtakingly handsome and aristocratically suave, riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal, supposedly "of the Tennessee Ravenals" to fill the void.
As Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal fall in love, putting all their passion and gusto into their onstage love scenes, profits soar as their fame and popularity spreads and the audience is packed every night.
Magnolia's eagle-eyed and vigilant mother, Parthenia, sees Gaylord Ravenal for exactly what he is, she isn't fooled for one second by his fine talk and elegant manners, or his exquisite English tailored wardrobe either, but no one heeds her warnings, and Magnolia and Ravenal sneak away one beautiful spring day and marry.
They are a beautiful couple onstage and off, but all that glitters is not gold. Naive Magnolia does not see her husband for the inveterate gambler he truly is until it is too late, and even then she cannot admit it even to herself. Their fortunes vary from day to day, Ravenal may have $1,000 in his pocket one day and not a penny the next. They leave the show boat and take up residence in Chicago, which in the 1890s is a wild and booming, raunchy city that never seems to sleep. The life they lead together zigzags with dazzling rapidity between luxury apartments and cheap boarding houses, fine restuarants and greasy diners, and the pawnshop, always the pawnshop.
The latter part of the book chronicles the rise of their daughter Kim (K for Kentucky, I for Illinois, M for Missouri as she was born on the flooding, storm-tossed Mississippi River between these three states) to stardom on the Broadway stage.
Edna Ferber's "Show Boat" is an enjoyable read, but a much darker tale than the one depicted on stage and screen since "Give me a happy ending!" was a creed the entertainment industry of the time generally adhered to. The novel also contains some language that is now considered offensive and improper, however, such words were sadly commonplace in both the time the novel is set and was written in.