Several years ago, in Ford’s Theatre Museum in Washington, D.C., I found myself staring at the Deringer pistol that John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. I stood there, transfixed, amazed that this small, surprisingly delicate and decorative weapon could change the course of American history. I felt similarly mesmerized as I devoured the 480 pages of Karen Joy Fowler’s triumph of a historical novel, Booth. I was torn by conflicting urges: to race ahead to see what happens next, or to read slowly and savor Fowler’s exquisite language and fascinating rendering of the various members of this legendary American family.
Many readers will begin Booth with the basic knowledge that John Wilkes Booth came from a famous theatrical family, but it’s unlikely that they’ll know just how celebrated and fascinating the Booths were, or that their lives were full of drama well before John Wilkes picked up that pistol. Think of Louisa May Alcott and her storied New England upbringing, and then pivot to something darker.
Fowler has previously written several short stories about the Booths and explains in an author’s note that she decided to write about them in novel form “during one of our American spates of horrific mass shootings.” She wondered about “their own culpability, all the if-onlys” and “what happens to love when the person you love is a monster.”
The Booths’ lives play out on their 150 acres of farmland in Bel Air, Maryland, in a mixture of 19th-century horror and family drama. John Wilkes was born in 1838, the ninth of 10 children, four of whom would die before reaching adulthood. They faced poverty, hunger and disease while patriarch Junius Booth, a famous Shakespearian actor, was on tour much of the year. He was an alcoholic with deep, dark secrets, which Fowler hints at with one simple sentence early on: “A secret family moves into the secret cabin.”
The story is told primarily by three of John Wilkes’ siblings—Rosalie, Edwin and Asia—all of whom are equally fascinating and well voiced. Early scenes narrated by Rosalie are particularly powerful and memorable. Fowler includes short passages about Lincoln and his family, ratcheting up the tension of what’s to come. With a master’s touch, she also incorporates vital depictions of racism through the lives of an enslaved family that works on the Booth farm, and shows how the issue of enslavement divides the Booth family through the years.
Like the very best historical novels, Booth is a literary feast, offering much more than a riveting story and richly drawn characters. It offers a wealth of commentary about not only our past but also where we are today, and where we may be headed.