(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Show Boat, an interesting portrayal of family dynamics and the conflict between romantic adventure and responsibility, begins with the birth of Kim Ravenal on the show boat known as the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre. As in So Big, the story quickly moves backward—in this case, all the way back to the courtship of Kim’s grandparents, Parthenia Ann (known as Parthy) and Captain Andy Hawks.

In Parthy, Ferber describes a stern, domineering, Puritanical mother figure who nags her husband but also provides him with home cooking, order, and comfort. Captain Andy, in contrast, is a fun-loving, good-natured type. Their daughter, Magnolia, takes after her father, and the two seem constantly in a conspiracy against Parthy. The narrator notes that the balance created by the captain’s lightheartedness and Parthy’s strictness is good for Magnolia, as if life requires both responsibility and fun.

After four or five interesting chapters exploring this family dynamic, Ferber shifts the story into a description of a life on a show boat. She describes the actors who play in the shows, the audiences that come to see them, and the vagaries of the Mississippi River. This turns the book for a while into a sort of travelogue or guidebook.

During this part of the story, Ferber introduces one of her recurrent themes: the treatment of minorities. The young Magnolia likes to spend time with the African American kitchen staff on the boat, who teach her Negro spirituals. This appalls her mother, who has a rather bigoted attitude. It also turns out that one of the actresses on board, who has been passing as white, is actually black. Because she is married to a white man, in violation of southern laws at the time, there is trouble.

Over the objections of her mother, Magnolia begins acting in the plays on the show boat. Also over her mother’s objections, Magnolia marries...

(The entire section is 787 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Show Boat re-creates the little-known phenomenon of life on a turn-of-the-century showboat as it brings theatrical entertainment to backwoods Midwestern river towns from Ohio and Illinois to New Orleans. The rivers themselves, the Mississippi especially, become live participants in the stories of the people who travel them—the actors, the steamboat operators, the cooks, the African American dock workers. The popularity of this particular development of American theater is told through three generations of hardworking middle-class people, centering on the love, marriage, and eventual desertion of Magnolia Hawks Ravenal by her gambler husband.

As the lively daughter of Captain Andy Hawks, the child Magnolia experiences the rich and varied life both on shore and within the traveling troupe of actors on board her father’s Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre showboat, despite her mother Parthenia’s puritanical objections. When the ingenue Elly deserts her adoring husband to follow another man, Magnolia becomes the leading lady in the melodramas. When southern laws against miscegenation force the biracial Julie and her white husband to leave the showboat, the impecunious gambler Gaylord Ravenal joins the troupe in New Orleans as the leading man in the plays. He soon captures Magnolia’s heart, both on stage and off, despite careful chaperoning by Parthenia and tolerant acceptance by Captain Andy. Escaping Parthenia’s suspicious eye, the...

(The entire section is 582 words.)