A house divided against itself cannot stand.Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1858
Karen Joy Fowler’s first novel in nine years, Booth, is one of the buzziest books of spring, and it deserves all the praise it is getting.
We all know that John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. But I knew little about Booth’s family until reading Fowler’s magnificent historical saga. Fowler spent a lot of time researching the Booths, which gives her story authenticity and intrigue. I always expect historical fiction to shine a light on something I didn’t know, and Fowler satisfied my expectation with page after page of well-crafted writing and details.
The infamous John Wilkes is one of 10 children born to Junius and Mary Booth on their Maryland farm, but the novel is largely about his haunted family. Junius is a famous British Shakespearean actor who travels the United States while his wife is left to deal with her large brood and the struggling Maryland farm. The patriarch is adored by his family, despite his heavy drinking and extreme views that they can’t eat meat or even pick flowers. Their love is really tested when Junius’ past causes the family great scandal and suffering.
The children, even the girls, can quote passages from Shakespeare’s plays. Eventually, brothers June, Edwin and John all become actors. The girls realize that although they can also perform many of the parts at home, they will never aspire to acting because that would be scandalous for a girl.
The story is largely told through the eyes of three Booth children: Rosalie, Edwin and Asia. The three siblings deftly portray all the sibling love, jealousies and competition that can occur in a big family. The reflective Rosalie, the second oldest child, is the most affected by the deaths of four younger siblings. Fowler said in her afterward that Rosalie is the most fictional of her characters because there was little written by or about her. Younger sister Asia, who is strong-willed and determined to be known in her own right, eventually publishes books about her father and Edwin, and pens an unpublished book about her remembrances of beloved brother John.
Edwin resents being pulled out of school as a boy and forced to accompany his father on the road, trying to keep Junius sober enough to perform. Edwin eventually surpasses his father as the most revered Shakespearean actor in the country, and is forced to financially support the entire family.
John, who is handsome and her mother’s favorite, is loved by the family, but later divides them with his pro-Confederacy, pro-slavery views and his sometimes violent behavior. The family suffers in the aftermath of the President’s murder, with death threats and even attacks.
Fowler peppers the narrative with Lincoln quotes to give the reader a real sense of politics in one of the most stormy times in American history. She also deftly weaves the topic of slavery and abolition through the storyline of the slave family that works on the Booth farm.
It is still early in the year, but I’m sure Booth will be one of my favorite books of 2022. If you are a fan of historical fiction, you do not want to miss this splendid novel.