Fate, history, and chance collide in Karen Joy Fowler’s riveting historical novel, “Booth.”
Why a novel about the family of one of American history’s most famous villains, John Wilkes Booth? Is it because we live in a time with ominous parallels to the Civil War era? Or because the Booth family, of whom John Wilkes was the least dedicated actor, provides such rich material?
Or, is it because, as Fowler suggests in the Shakespeare epigraph to Book Six of the novel, “What’s past is prologue”?
All of this is true. And the Booker Prize short-listed Fowler has never shirked from a challenge. In this novel, her task is how to contextualize someone whose flaws and fatal misguidedness forever skewed our history.
John Wilkes was one of 10 children, six of whom survived, born to Junius Brutus Booth, the most famous Shakespearean actor of his time, and Mary Ann, a “dark-haired beauty” who sold flowers at her family’s London business. Decamping from Britain to America, the couple locates to a cabin outside Baltimore. Since Junius Booth is often on tour, Mary Ann must oversee the 180-acre farm with her alcoholic father-in-law. If John Wilkes’s murderous act defines him, the deaths of four of her children define Mary Ann.
The novel is told from the points of view of three siblings: Rosalie, the eldest daughter, “the most unremarkable child in this remarkable family”; Edwin, John Wilkes’s older brother, whose fame as an actor rivaled their father’s; and Asia, the closest sibling to John Wilkes, who wrote books about her famous actor father, her brother Edwin, and her infamous brother, whom the family called Johnny.
Fowler writes: “The ten-year gap between Rosalie and Edwin is where all the dead children are.”
The climax of the overarching national narrative hangs like a miasma over the novel. We all know the terrible ending. What elevates “Booth” is the granular texture of what’s beneath the bald facts: the how and the myriad whats and whys, the truths. And there is also Fowler’s trademark dark humor.
The Booth siblings jockey for notice in a family whose center is the often-absent, alcohol-drenched Junius, a famous father also known for his “mad freaks”: digging up his dead daughter to try to bring her back to life; performing a public funeral for passenger pigeons shot by farmers as pests. Fowler writes: “In spite of the raving and drunkenness, the violence and temper, the Booth children all adored their father.”
The Booth farm operates with leased slaves who live in cabins. Junius pays them fees, and some have managed to buy their freedom. As a toddler, happy little Johnny is especially attached to Ann, the wife of the freed slave Joe, who runs the farm in Junius’s absence.
“The farmhands tease Ann about her new white son,” Fowler writes.
The father’s reputation illuminates and overshadows the family, but Johnny’s destiny is predicted when, holding her baby, Mary Ann has a vision, which takes years to play out, and reverses what she would want: “Instantly a flame rose from the ashes and, shaping itself into an arm, stretched toward the baby as if to knight him. In that flame, Mother said, she could read the word Country, followed by Johnny’s name.”
The family moves to Baltimore, where Junius consorts with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe. At the age of 14, Edwin begins to tour with Junius, trying to make sure his father is on time, on cue, and sober. He must keep his father alive, and, later, his family financially afloat. He fails at the first, succeeds at the second.
Johnny and brother Joe are at a boarding school outside Baltimore when their father dies. One of their classmates is the nephew of Robert E. Lee. Johnny’s brief time there will help sway his political sympathies toward the South.
The Booths swim in their own current amid a larger sea of tumult. Abraham Lincoln appears in short chapters, rising from Illinois to national political fame, being pushed to run for the presidency after John Brown’s hanging, suffering the loss of his dear son Willie.
The family scatters, with Edwin married and performing in New York, Asia married and in Philadelphia, Rosalie and her mother shuttling between the two households. Edwin’s star rises in the theater world. John (no longer Johnny) is consumed by politics.
Asia is the closest to John, but it’s eldest son, Junius Jr., also an actor, who is detailed to talk with their difficult, angry brother: “They’re not thinking about anything he might do so much as who he is becoming — Father’s madness without Father’s genius to excuse it.”
A theater enthusiast, Lincoln has seen the Booths before: John once, Edwin several times. The war is over, General Lee has surrendered, and although he would have preferred to stay home, Lincoln is at Ford’s Theatre where he is murdered by the unhinged John Wilkes Booth.
Karen Joy Fowler, an intrepid writer, cheerfully debunked the myths of westward settlement in “Sarah Canary,” took a romp through Jane Austen novels in “The Jane Austen Book Club,” and tackled animal cruelty in “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.”
If Fowler’s seventh novel occasionally sags from the depth of her prodigious research, “Booth” is still a massive achievement. In it, Fowler weaves history, family culture, and human cruelties into an insightful reckoning of a past that seems too much a prologue to our American present.
By Karen Joy Fowler
Putnam, 470 pages, $28
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book critic.