Fates and Traitors by Jennifer Chiaverini

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If the President of the United States leaves office mid-term, for whatever reason, the Vice President automatically takes over.  They may well turn out to be considerably worse.  Obviously 😉 I’m referring to the events of April 1865: this book is sub-titled “A novel of John Wilkes Booth”.

The style of writing leaves something to be desired.  It sometimes comes close to that sickly over-sentimental style that’s much more often found in American books that British books, and someone really ought to tell the editor that the plural of “beau” is “beaux”, not “beaus” (have they never read Gone With The Wind?!  Surely everyone’s read it at least a dozen times 😉 !!), but the actual story is fascinating.

Unless you go right back to Roman times, assassins are usually people not known to anyone outside their own circles, but John Wilkes Booth was quite a celebrity.  His name would have been well-known to anyone in Washington society, and to many other people too, certainly those with access to the world of theatre.  He was a bit of a pin-up, as dashing, good-looking actors always are.  And he was from arguably the greatest American theatrical dynasty of the day.  His father was a famous actor, first in Britain and then in America, his brother Junius was also an actor, and his brother Edwin – whom I first came across just over thirty years ago, as a minor character in John Jakes’s wonderful Heaven and Hell – is often described as the best American actor of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, he was involved with, and possibly secretly engaged to, Lucy Lambert Hale, who was one of Washington’s most popular belles, the daughter of a leading Republican, and had admirers (beaux, with an x!) including Robert Lincoln, the son of the president.

So not your usual sort of modern assassin.  Well, insofar is there is one.  The book concentrates mainly on various women connected with him – his mother, his sister Asia, his sweetheart Lucy, and Mary Surratt, at whose boarding house the conspirators met and who became the first women executed by the federal government.  It starts with his parents’ story, which reads like a Hollywood film script on its own.  His father, a famous London-based actor, left his wife and child and ran off to America with his mistress.   They had several children, of whom John Wilkes was one, and then it all came out that they weren’t really married and that his father had left a wife back in England!   Eventually, Booth senior and his first wife were divorced, and Booth’s parents married, but it was all a right scandal.  And there was also considerable sibling rivalry between the brothers, Edwin being by far the best actor.

From there, though, very little is said about John Wilkes Booth’s life until he got involved with Lucy Hale, and then it’s all from her viewpoint.  There’s no real effort to explain why he decided to take such a drastic step.  The original plan was actually to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners, which would have been pretty drastic in itself, but, with the war all but over, it was decided to assassinate him instead.  The book makes references to his love of the South, but they’re all rather vague and superficial, and not at all satisfactory.  He wasn’t exactly the most obvious of assassins.  It would be far easier to understand Lincoln being assassinated by someone from the Deep South, the fire-eating South, imbued with genuine notions of the Glorious Cause, probably someone who’d lost relatives and friends, and maybe their home and money as well.  Or someone from a poor area of the upcountry, who felt that they had nothing to lose.

Why John Wilkes Booth?  He didn’t even live in the Confederacy.  He’d spent some time in Virginia, but his home was Maryland, one of the four (five, once West Virginia was admitted to the Union),Southern states within the Union.  The whole issue of the Upper South is interesting.  Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee, and North Carolina can probably be counted as the Upper South too, seceded.  Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri didn’t.  A lot of divided loyalties.  When you think of the Southern outlaws in the immediate post-bellum years, you think first of Frank and Jesse James – from Missouri.  Mary Surratt was from Maryland.  Washington itself was – and still is – a Southern city.  Richmond and Washington are only about 100 miles apart  It really is ridiculous that the two capitals were so close together, and both so close to the border.  I suppose they weren’t going to move the federal capital, but why not leave the Confederate capital at Montgomery, where it was before the Upper South seceded?  Very odd decision.

Anyway!  Nothing really to try to explain why Booth did what he did.  And so much else about him was missing.  Mary Surratt’s deep Catholic faith was clearly shown, but there was nothing about Booth’s own possible Catholic links.  Some people at the time tried to make out that it was some sort of Papist plot.  OK, obviously that was a load of nonsense, but the fact that people were speaking in terms which belong more to the 1680s to the 1860s says a lot about attitudes at the time – think the horrendous Elsie books! – and you’d think it would have merited a mention.  Even more strangely, nothing’s said about the other women he was supposedly involved with.  We see Lucy, after the assassination, reading in the papers that he had a mistress, and carried photos of various actresses around with him, but that’s the first we hear of it.  Lucy ends up feeling that she didn’t really know him at all.  The reader unfortunately ends up feeling exactly the same.

Having said all of that, it’s worth reading this just to get a better understanding of John Wilkes Booth’s background, because it’s so crazy that this matinee idol type, member of a leading theatrical dynasty, was the one to carry out this act that, in addition to being utterly horrific because all murder is horrific, had such a huge impact on the future of America.  We’ll never know if Reconstruction would have gone any better under Lincoln than it did under Johnson – and the idea was to assassinate Johnson as well, but it didn’t happen – and Grant, but it’s hard to think that it could have gone much worse.    Booth shouted “Sic simper tyrannis!  The South is avenged!”.  Surely the South would have fared much better if Lincoln had lived.  Some sort of economic rebuilding would have been key: there are parts of the South which still haven’t recovered economically from the war, after over 150 years.  But we’ll never know now.

And, yes, if you remove a president, you get the vice president instead.  Worrying thought, that, isn’t it?

One thought on “Fates and Traitors by Jennifer Chiaverini

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