Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
Publication date: March 8, 2022
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary
I’m not a Civil War buff so have never paid much attention to the time period, but when I saw Karen Joy Fowler had a new novel out, I knew I wanted to read it regardless of subject matter. Which is how I found myself immersed in the serpentine history of one of America’s most infamous families, the Booths. Fowler’s novel is Booth and it is not just about John, but his entire tragic family. He is brought fully to life amidst a drunken bigamist of a father, an indulgent but ineffectual mother, five siblings, and a country divided.
The greatest stain on the family’s name is clearly the assassination of President Lincoln, but Fowler goes well beyond John’s disturbed megalomania and skewed world view to delve into the lives of his siblings, most notably Rosalie, Asia, and Edwin. While she doesn’t ignore the heinous nature of his actions (or what a bombastic, entitled toad he was), it does supply a more complete portrait of a family that was deeply damaged right down into the roots of their family tree.
Junius Booth, the patriarch, while a man of high ideals when it came to the rights of animals and all men, was largely absent, mostly drunk, and despite being one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the time, unable to provide for his family. Both the ideals and the degeneracy lived on in his children, with John being the only one who had no ideals beyond what served him best. The boys became men who all lived on the stage while Rosalie stayed alone in the shadows and Asia, vivacious but inclined to believe the world owed her fell under the spell of her baby brother, John.
As much as Booth is about one family, it is also filled with salient details of the times. In small snippets, Fowler pairs Abraham Lincoln’s path with the family’s accentuating the feeling of dread as they begin to entwine. She achieves the same effect with her scene setting as the family moves between life on a farm to Baltimore, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania and Manhattan—all highlighting the kindling effect of the social, economic, and political events of the times.
All of this makes for fascinating reading about a turbulent time in American history, but for all that the novel achieves it is reading requiring a certain degree of patience. The novel is long with a stately pace. Light, fun, fast summer reading it’s not. But if you want a carefully constructed interpretation of the years leading up to America’s greatest divide alongside one family’s sordid history then Booth rewards on both counts.
Want historical fiction from the perspective of the women in Booth’s life? I recommend Fates & Traitors by Jennifer Chiaverini.
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