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.)