Booth by Karen Joy Fowler


This is a fictional depiction of the lives of the Booth family, including Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth and the famous actor Edwin Booth.  It’s told in the present tense, which is always annoying but doesn’t detract from the story, and from the viewpoints of several of the Booth siblings, but *not* John Wilkes.  Interspersed with their story are updates on the political events of the time, told as they impacted on Abraham Lincoln.

National events don’t really seem to have much effect on the Booths, apart from a few references to John’s involvement with the Know Nothings.  I first came across the Know Nothings in North and South, when I was 11, and the term threw my little self completely.   Anyway.  We don’t even get John’s angle on that; and we’re told that his political views and sense of Southern identity were largely formed during his schooldays, which we don’t see.  Most of the family are in New York during the Draft Riots, but that’s as close as the war gets to them.  Edwin and John just carry on working as actors throughout the war.  However, we do see their relationship with a freedman and his family, and his efforts to buy his wife and children out of slavery.  But, again, we don’t get John’s angle on it.  We get a good sense of his sisters Rosalie and Asia, and of his brother Edwin, but we don’t get much of a sense of John.

It’s an interesting portrayal of an often unconventional family, and I found Rosalie, the elder sister, particularly appealing.  But I don’t really get the idea of writing a book about John Wilkes Booth’s family without telling us anything much about John himself.  If the idea was that he was largely shaped by his family and upbringing, I’d get it, but we’re told that he was largely shaped by his time and school, which the book doesn’t show us.  The blurb on the back cover said that the book showed the effect of the assassination on the family, and how they had to come to terms with what their loved one had done. That would certainly have been interesting, but the book only went on for 31 pages after the assassination.

The blurb on the back also said that John Wilkes Booth changed the course of history.  Did he?  Would things have turned out differently if John Wilkes Booth hadn’t assassinated Abraham Lincoln?   I’m not Lincoln’s greatest fan, but surely he’d have handled Reconstruction better than Andrew Johnson did.  He could hardly have handled it any worse.  If Reconstruction had been handled better, would a lot of the problems faced by the re-United States then have been mitigated?   We’ll never know.  And, as a slight aside, pretty much everyone can name John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, but hands up anyone who can name the assassins of William McKinley and James Garfield.

I did quite enjoy this book, because the Booths were an interesting family, but it all seemed to be leading up to John Wilkes Booth shooting Lincoln – the book ended not long after that – and yet John, and his reasons for what he did, featured relatively little in the book.  It was an interesting idea for a book, but I’m not sure that it entirely worked.  It wasn’t a bad read just as a book about the Booth family, though.


5 thoughts on “Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

  1. As usual, I’m out of tune with the majority on this one. I abandoned it quite early on since it just seemed to be pages and pages of child deaths described with a complete lack of emotion. I’m glad you found that it was worth struggling through even if it did seem to miss out the most interesting bit of the story!

    Liked by 1 person

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