Book Review

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler


Junius is the patriarch, a celebrated Shakespearean actor who fled bigamy charges in England, both a mesmerising talent and a man of terrifying instability. As his children grow up in a remote farmstead in 1830s rural Baltimore, the country draws ever closer to the boiling point of secession and civil war.

Of the six Booth siblings who survive to adulthood, each has their own dreams they must fight to realise – but it is Johnny who makes the terrible decision that will change the course of history – the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Booth is a riveting novel focused on the very things that bind, and break, a family.

I adored Karen Joy Fowler’s previous novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and I was thrilled to learn that the author was to appear at this year’s Hay festival to talk about her latest novel, Booth.

Booth is the story of the Booth family, one of whom – John Wilkes Booth – achieves infamy for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. While this act has obvious historical significance, the novel itself does not focus on John or this act in any detail.  The assassination does feature – it would be odd to ignore it completely – but it happens towards the end of this relatively hefty novel which clocks in at some 470-odd pages. Rather, we get to know the family and follow them through their various highs and lows starting before John – the second youngest child – is even born.  Nor do we get John’s point of view in the novel, and so if you’re looking for more about John Wilkes Booth, his motivation, and all the gory detail surrounding his decision and the assassination then this probably isn’t the novel for you.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m British and so less aware of the family as a whole or because John’s act has so completely eclipsed the achievements of the rest of the family (I suspect the latter) but the Booth family, or more accurately the men of the Booth family, were all well-known during the 19th century, primarily for those who took to the stage. This begins with the father – Junius Booth, a Shakespearean actor who left the UK for America in the early 19th century. He tours almost constantly and is away from his family for nine months of each year although he still finds time to father ten children, six of whom survive into adulthood.  Three of these – including John – will also tread the boards, with varying degrees of success as they all struggle to live up to their father’s legacy.

Booth is told from the perspectives of three of the children – Rosalie, Edwin, and Asia. I found Rosalie’s point of view the most moving, which is perhaps because she is the one that Fowler had the most creative license with, there being very little information about this second oldest of the Booth children. Her life is one of drudgery. As an older sibling and a female, she is expected to help her mother with the house and her younger siblings when she is little more than a child herself. Even as she reaches a marriable age, she remains at home, never to marry, know love, or have her own children. I had the sense that her siblings were given many opportunities that were denied to Rosalie, including a formal education, although she is taught to read and write and is at least able to lose herself in literature from time to time.  While she is quite accepting of her situation, I felt angry on her behalf and became quite invested in her character even though she is the one most limited by circumstance.

Edwin and Asia are much younger than Rosalie, by around 11 and 13 years respectively, and with their father’s increasing success they are given proper schooling. Edwin follows in his father’s footsteps – literally for a time as he becomes something of a chaperone to Junius in an attempt to keep him on the straight and narrow – on to the stage, although whether he surpasses his father’s talents depends on who you ask.  Asia – as the only other surviving girl in the family – does no such thing, but seems to have more freedom than Rosalie ever did. She is expected to help around the house, and yet her life seems undeniably richer than that of her sister with friends and social activities that seem denied to the reclusive Rosalie. While the women of the family have less agency than their father and brothers, they don’t seem to mind this, although whether that’s just because how things were, I couldn’t say, but Asia does at least make the most of what’s available to her.

John says that he wants to do something important, something with weight and consequence, something that will leave a mark.

Through these three perspectives, we learn what the broader family is up to through the years, including John Wilkes who we see from the moment of his birth, into childhood, and as he grows into a young man who is determined to leave his mark on the world. John seems to be unique within the family for his political views and is the only one to support the south in the Civil War. I couldn’t help but wonder whether having his father present during his childhood might have made a difference.  Junius has plenty of faults, but I get the impression that he would have been a supporter of Lincoln and abolition had he lived to see it.  That’s not to suggest that the blame lies with the father – John made his own choices – but I wonder whether having him around might have mellowed John’s opinions somewhat and helped to steer him down a different path. 

While we’re following the Booth family through the years, Fowler also lets us know what Lincoln is up to from his early days in politics through to his presidential candidacy, his election to President, and the beginning of his second term four years later.  The reader knows what coming, and yet it’s hard to see how he will ever cross paths with this young man from Baltimore.  While brief, I found that these sections detailing Lincoln’s rise to power added to the sense of inevitability that I felt upon starting the novel, and even though I knew what was to come, I was curious as to how it would come about.  It’s not a fast-paced or action-packed novel, but I was gripped throughout.

Booth explores many themes including slavery, emancipation, and family life in 19th century America, and I found this to be a fascinating novel charting the life and times of a family who might have achieved a very different kind of fame were it not for one errant son.  A wonderful and engaging read for anyone interested in this period of history.

Booth was published in March by Serpent’s Tail and is available now in hardback, digital, and audio formats.

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