book review, historical fiction, history

Review: Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler explores a family made (in)famous by the history-altering actions of John Wilkes Booth. While many know that John Wilkes was an actor, many still may not know (including myself) that he came from a family of actors. His father, Junius Brutus Booth, was a famous Shakespearean actor in London who then emigrated with his fledgling family to Maryland. While the story of Booth inevitably builds to the assassination of Lincoln, Fowler does not focus on John, but rather on his siblings Rosalie, Edwin, Asia, June, and Joe. Rest assured this book does not seek to glorify or sympathize with John Wilkes, but rather explores the fracturing of families in a time of war and the fallout of the assassination on the rest of the family who ultimately paid the social and spiritual price for John’s assassination of Lincoln, even when John was the only pro-Confederate member of the family.

Fowler’s author note mentions she was in the final edits of this book when the Capitol building was stormed on January 6th and how the deep political divisions in America today still hold true to when they did leading up to and during the Civil War. Booth asks us to contemplate how a family member(s) can fall so far down the rabbit hole, away from their upbringing and those close to them to believe something so dangerous with such conviction that they will commit treason–assassination. It’s hard not to draw comparisons with how some people today believe fabrications, racism, etc. with such conviction that they are willing to storm the Capitol building. I also couldn’t help but think about the families of people who commit mass shootings.

Fowler shines light on the rest of the family who accomplished success in their own right, but will forever be overshadowed and have their family name tarnished by the man who assassinated Lincoln. Edwin, though victim of the substance abuse family history, became a revered actor who toured the world, eventually owned his own theatres, and even saved Lincoln’s son Robert from an oncoming train after falling onto train tracks (this occurred before the assassination and Edwin was not aware who Robert was at the time.) Asia, who became a writer and poet in the years “after.” Fowler admits to filling in the gaps with Rosalie, the oldest daughter, who was described as an “invalid” in reality, but is given a curious gift of communicating with the dead. The family seemed to be destined for the public eye in one way or another.

Fowler writes in a present tense with a fast pace, which I was not used to since I’ve never read her work before. The poetic language and brevity largely worked, though many occurrences seemed glossed over at this pace. One must read between the lines. Chapters are periodically interspersed with historical blurbs concerning Lincoln, which read like non-fiction interludes. The shadow of the assassination hangs over the entire book, and after it happens, Fowler is apt at describing the dark ramifications and fall out the rest of the family faced.