Magnolia Ravenal is giving birth to her first child on a boat, the Cotton Blossom, on the Mississippi River in a storm. Her shrewish mother, Parthenia, or Parthy, Hawks is with her. Magnolia is the daughter of the boat’s owner and captain, Andy Hawks, and, like her father, loves the theater, the river, and her husband, Gaylord Ravenal, who plays romantic leads opposite Magnolia in the showboat’s troupe.
Magnolia’s story goes back to the time when she had been growing up on the Creole Belle during the summers and in Massachusetts during the winters. Young Maggie, the story goes, hangs out in the pilothouse with Windy, the colorful old pilot. She is a sharp observer and imitator of the variety of passengers and troupe members who travel and work on the boat. Indeed, she is entranced by the “show people.” She adores her father, the captain and king of the boat who knows every inch of the river, from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana; but she is rebellious toward her strict and overbearing mother.
Cap’n Andy, as the captain is also known, buys a new boat, the Cotton Blossom, and proposes to live on it year-round. However, Parthy refuses to travel on it, until young Maggie throws tantrums. Gradually, Parthy is seduced by the boat’s well-equipped kitchen and consents to live on the boat when she sees the actresses flirting with her husband. She and Maggie spend more and more time afloat and soon get used to the lifestyle: the morning band-concerts ashore when Cap’n Andy hands out playbills; afternoon rehearsals and evening performances from the troupe’s repertoire of melodramas; and talent shows, after which the cast and crew rehash the latest performance while eating a late supper. Young Maggie learns all the plays by heart, simply by listening.
One day, Julie Dozier, the troupe’s star actress, becomes too ill to perform at a town in Mississippi. Her illness, it turns out, had been feigned: She had been trying to evade the local sheriff, who had come aboard the boat with a warrant to arrest Julie and her actor husband, Steve. It soon emerges that Julie is an octoroon, that is, a person of one-eighth black ancestry. She is married to a white man—a marriage in violation of Mississippi’s antimiscegenation laws. This news sparks a frenzy of hate toward Julie from Elly Chipley, the other actress in the troupe. The sheriff orders Andy to clear his boat, and his “mixed-blood” cast, from town.
Julie and Steve leave the troupe at the next town. Shortly afterward, Elly runs off with a gambler, and her husband, Schultzy, the troupe’s director, leaves as well to find her. Eighteen-year-old Maggie then steps in to fill the actresses’ roles, playing ingenue leads.
Maggie’s first performance is so realistic that a rube in the audience pulls a gun to shoot the actor playing the villain, which...
(The entire section is 1185 words.)