by Cherise T.
Notorious. Home to many historical figures, Baltimore lays claim to one of the most reviled, John Wilkes Booth. Legendary. The pinnacle of theatrical performance, Shakespearean acting claims Junius, John’s father, and Edwin, John’s brother, as two of its finest. Radical. One of the highest acts of rebellion, the Underground Railroad claims Richard Booth, John’s grandfather, as one of its aides.
Booth, by Karen Joy Fowler, explores these, and many other, aspects of an infamous family. The bestselling author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Fowler has written another dysfunctional family novel. Booth will engage readers interested in local Maryland history, the Lincoln assassination, and disturbing tales of family legacy.
Enraged by the gun violence epidemic, yet not wanting to glorify an assassin, Fowler began researching the Booth family. With the goal of placing John Wilkes Booth in a broader sociological context, Fowler presents a detailed portrait of Booth’s first-degree relatives as well as his ancestry. I marveled at how the Booth family was at once isolated from and central to the politics surrounding the Civil War. We discover the abolitionist leanings of the majority of the Booth family and gain a limited glimpse into John’s radicalization. I learned a lot but was also left wanting to know more about John’s motivations and the repercussions for his family after the assassination.
Fowler documents the timeline of Abraham Lincoln’s life alongside the lives of the Booths. We see the violent partisanship that has always been woven into the fabric of US history. At times I wondered why this book had not been written as narrative nonfiction instead. Similar to a solid history text, Booth documents significant quotes, historical events, and primary sources. We learn that Junius Booth frequented the Green Dragon Tavern, a Boston bar where you can still grab a drink. Fowler describes the construction of Tudor Hall, the Bel Air home of the Booths that remains open for tours.
At the heart of the novel are the stage actors in the family, Junius, Edwin, John, and Junius, Jr. Both Junius and Edwin were internationally renowned for their stagecraft and self-destructive alcoholism. One of the joys of the novel is found in figuring out the sources of Shakespeare quotes the family members use as part of their daily communications. They are a theater family at their core. John was the ninth of ten children, four of whom died before reaching adulthood. Fowler traces these deaths to the lasting impact on the fates of family members. She depicts John as the light of his mother’s life, the golden child born to help ease the family’s pain.
The novel is well researched, beautifully written, and provides a unique perspective on the Civil War in the context of one family’s experience. The reader connects with the men and the women in the family, as well as their associates, friends, and love interests. Booth would be an excellent choice for a book group discussion.
Cherise Tasker is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. When not immersed in literary fiction, Cherise can be found singing along to musical theater soundtracks.