Ann H. Gabhart is the bestselling author of many novels, including When the Meadow Blooms, Along a Storied Trail, An Appalachian Summer, River to Redemption, These Healing Hills, and Angel Sister. She and her husband live on a farm a mile from where she was born in rural Kentucky. Ann enjoys discovering the everyday wonders of nature while hiking in her farm’s fields and woods with her grandchildren and her dogs, Frankie and Marley.
In this interview, Ann discusses her latest novel, In the Shadow of the River.
FF: Can you please provide a brief summary of your novel In the Shadow of the River?
On the steamship where she works as a maid, Irena Reed fights off a man who tries to kidnap five-year-old Jacci. Injured in the confrontation, Irena takes Jacci to a showboat tied up beside their steamship, where Irena’s father is an actor. Jacci doesn’t understand what is happening and is puzzled about the overheard conversations between her mother and grandfather. After her mother dies, Jacci finds a home with her grandfather on the Kingston Floating Palace showboat. She becomes part of the showboat family and acting cast. Fifteen years later, Jacci continues to wonder about the mystery surrounding her mother’s death. Gabe Kingston, thirteen when Jacci joined the showboat family, has loved her for years, but he worries she will never see him as more than a brother figure. As the summer heats up, Jacci’s search for the truth of her past puts her in danger. When someone tries to kill her, the need for answers becomes critical. Gabe is ready to do whatever he can to protect her.
FF: Your novel offers a very intriguing plot. What was the inspiration behind your story?
While looking for a new story idea, I picked up a book about steamboats and how important they were to commerce. But boats weren’t just carrying passengers and freight. Showboats were also bringing entertainment to towns and villages along the rivers. Most showboats were family affairs with fathers, mothers, and children putting on shows each night and then heading on down the river to the next landing. As I did more research, my showboat family came to life in my imagination. I wanted to stir some mystery into my story. So, what better place for a person to disappear than on a showboat that was rarely in one place more than a night or two during the long showboat season? Then I had to find a reason for my character to need to disappear. Each question and each answer helped me dip deeper into my story of how the unknown past can be a threat to the future.
FF: In the Shadow of the River takes place on the Ohio River, which borders Kentucky. Why did you choose this setting?
I originally hoped to set the story on the Kentucky River since my books all have Kentucky settings, but in my research I discovered that the big showboats couldn’t navigate the Kentucky River in the time period of my story unless the river was flooded. The showboats went up and down many rivers, usually starting on the Kanawha River in West Virginia in the early spring and then ending up down the Mississippi to Louisiana rivers in the fall. I picked a summer setting for my story and imagined my showboat on the Ohio during the summer months. Then I concentrated on the landings along the river on the Kentucky side. That way I was able to keep my Kentucky setting.
FF: Your female protagonist, Jacci Reed, grew up on a showboat. What type of research was required to accurately portray life on a showboat in the late 1800s?
I read several books about families who lived on showboats for most of the year. I had no idea when I started my research that showboats were so elaborate. While the early ones were very basic, as the years went by, the showboat families built larger boats with theaters that could seat hundreds of entertainment-hungry patrons. Many showboat owners became wealthy. The family generally had very nice living quarters too, although the rooms for the hired actors and actresses were small.
A showboat wasn’t a steamboat. It was a huge, elaborately decked-out raft that was pushed up and down the river by a small steamboat. The actors signed on at the beginning of the season and stayed with the showboat until the end of the season months later. The family of the showboat owner was generally the nucleus of the shows, but the actors they hired had a way of becoming part of the family. Some would come back every season. Others signed on to see the country along the river, to do some fishing during the days, and to save money since the little towns and landings where the showboat tied up didn’t give much opportunity for the actors to spend their earnings.
The showboat family did face many hazards as they traveled up and down the rivers. They had fires, floods, sickness at times, and angry patrons when the shows didn’t live up to the audiences’ expectations. At the same time, the showboat people loved the life and always looked forward to the next landing and the next show.
FF: As a child, Jacci experienced a traumatic event. Can you please provide some insight about this occurrence?
In the 1800s, a woman was ostracized for having a child out of wedlock. The child, innocent of any blame, was also subjected to ridicule and shame. Jacci’s mother did not want that for her child, and so she came up with a convoluted plan to hide the fact that Jacci was illegitimate. But with Jacci, other factors were also at play. Jacci’s mother feared the powerful man her father insisted she marry would find out about the baby and do something to ensure no one would ever know about her indiscretion. The plan to hide Jacci falls apart when a man tries to take her from the only mother she has ever known. Jacci’s mother struggles with the man and is gravely wounded. Jacci’s world is turned upside down.
FF: How did this incident impact her life?
Jacci is set adrift without the anchor of her mother. While she likes life with her grandfather on the showboat, the secretive nature of her past haunts her. Her grandfather tells her to forget about the past and concentrate on her future. But the unknown can sometimes threaten the future. Jacci begins to wonder if her life is as pretend as the plays she stars in on the showboat.
FF: Jacci is determined to find out secrets from her past. But her quest continues to be blocked. Why did her grandfather in particular feel like the past should stay hidden?
Jacci’s grandfather, Duke, promised her mother that he would protect Jacci. He felt that also meant protecting her from the unhappy facts about her birth. Duke was a man who lived to act. It was only natural for him to push aside the truth of the past that he believed would do nothing but bring Jacci pain. He wanted Jacci to dwell in the happiness of the present. On top of that, Irena had never shared everything about Jacci’s early life. So, Duke didn’t know all the answers Jacci wanted.
FF: Can you please tell readers about Gabe Kingston and his connection to Jacci?
Gabe was the first person Jacci saw when she and her mother came aboard the Kingston Floating Palace. At thirteen, Gabe was greatly impacted by a real-life drama with impending tragedy rather than the pretend dramas they acted out on the showboat stage. He took Jacci under his wing and treated her like a beloved little sister. But as they both got older, he realized his feelings were more than that of a brother for a sister. However, because he wasn’t sure Jacci would ever feel the same, he feared stepping out of the brother shadow to reveal his true feelings. From the very first week she was on the showboat, he would do anything to make sure she was safe and did his best to find ways to make her smile.
FF: What do you hope audiences will gain from reading In the Shadow of the River?
Of course, I want those who read the story to be entertained and enjoy getting to know Jacci, Gabe and all the cast as they ride along with them on the showboat. I found the showboat history fascinating, and I hope my readers will as well. I think the story proves that line from a poem written by Sir Walter Scott in 1808: What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. Sometimes no matter the motivation behind the deceit, a person can still be caught in that tangled web and suffer the consequences.
FF: What are you working on next?
I’ve headed back in time to 1910 as I return to the Eastern Kentucky Appalachian Mountains for a new novel about a preacher and a teacher who go into the hills in hopes of not only changing lives there for the better but also finding a way to happiness for themselves. They will have challenges and obstacles in their road and will have to look to the Lord for the right directions in their lives.
In the Shadow of the River
Ann H. Gabhart
Genres: Historical Romance
Release Date: May 9, 2023
If all the world’s a stage, Jacci will play her part.
She only hopes her story does not turn out to be a tragedy.
In 1881, Jacci Reed is only five years old when a man attempts to kidnap her from the steamboat her mother, Irena, works on. Badly wounded during the confrontation, Irena takes Jacci aboard the Kingston Floating Palace, a showboat tied up beside them. There, Jacci’s actor grandfather tends to her mother and Jacci gets a first taste of the life she will come to lead.
Fifteen years later, Jacci is an actress aboard the Kingston Floating Palace, and largely contented with her adopted family of actors, singers, and dancers. Especially Gabe, who has always supported her, and the gruff grandfather she has come to know and love. Jacci’s mother has been gone for years, but the memory of the altercation that ultimately took her life–and the cryptic things Jacci has overheard about her past–is always there, lurking in the back of her mind.
When someone on the showboat tries to kill Jacci, it’s clear her questions demand answers. But secrets have a way of staying in the shadows, and the answers she craves will not come easily. Gabe only hopes they come in time for him and Jacci to have a future together.
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