Published by Dutton
Publication date: September 13th 2016
Fates and Traitors is a novel about John Wilkes Booth as told from the vantage point of the three women who were most important in his life and one near stranger who let him into her life. There is his mother, Mary Ann Booth; his sister, Asia; and Lucy Hale, his secret fiancé. Mary Surratt is a woman sympathetic to the Confederate cause, who owned the boarding house where he met with his co-conspirators. From his childhood until his last moments, the story of one of the most reviled and notorious men in American history is recounted by the women who surrounded him, and, ultimately were betrayed by him.
Author Jennifer Chiaverini uses each of the women to illustrate a different part of Booth’s life. For those of us who know little beyond his assassination of Lincoln it is interesting to learn that his father and older brother were world famous stage actors while he was mediocre at best; that his parents were not married for thirty years and six children because his father had a wife and son back in Europe; that his parents were staunch abolitionists, even going so far as to a free a slave they bought before hiring him to manage their farm; and that not only was Lucy Hale his fiancé, she was the daughter of a senator. That these facts are carefully woven into Chiaverini’s telling of the lives of Mary Ann, Asia, Lucy and Mary makes Fates and Traitors the perfect blend of historical authenticity and compelling fiction.
It’s worth noting that in Fates and Traitors Booth is the least nuanced character. I don’t believe this to be an artistic choice on Chiaverini’s part as she did a great deal of research on his life and writings. My overwhelming sense by the end of the novel was of a selfish, entitled, pretty boy who used his looks and charm to get his way. He had no great intellectual ideas about the south and slavery—just a feeling that there had to be an entire class of people subjugated to his desires. He was angry that his life wasn’t going as he believed it ought to, that his magnificent talent was being ignored. His attitude feels especially relevant given the fact that we now have a president, members of his staff, and a newly-active contingent of white supremacists, who are still trying to burnish the image of the genteel and honorable antebellum south. Booth took action on these abhorrent beliefs, leaving a grievous trail of devastation behind him—both for our country and for the foolish women who loved and believed him.