Every family shares a stage, but some are more crowded than others. In her exquisite new historical novel, “Booth,” acclaimed author Karen Joy Fowler raises the curtain on a cast of ego-driven, grief-haunted siblings and parents jostling for a spotlight even as they carelessly shove into the shadows the more timid among them. Leading the ensemble is the flamboyant Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth, father most famously of the celebrated tragedian Edwin; and most infamously of John Wilkes, who abandoned his acting career to perpetrate the real-life tragedy of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
Yes, we know even before we turn the first page where the intertwined timelines of the Booths and American history will lead, but Fowler’s deftly imagined family portrait keeps us riveted. Her exploration of the pathways by which a seemingly private family melodrama can bleed into public savagery illuminates not just a single household’s, but an entire country’s toxic dysfunction. That we are still grappling with the Civil War era’s legacy lends Fowler’s chronicle an inescapable contemporary resonance and underlines anew Shakespeare’s timeless observation that what is past is prologue and that we forget it at our peril.
The novel opens in 1822 at the secluded farm in Bel Air, Md., where Junius and his family have recently settled, having abruptly decamped from London for reasons they prefer to keep secret. Their air of mystery baffles their neighbors, as few names are more recognizable than Booth’s, whose theatrical eloquence garnered high praise from poet Walt Whitman among many others. Equally puzzling is his decision to buy a home so remote that he would need to absent himself from his family for nine months of every year while he tours the country, plying his trade. What is he trying to hide? Eventually his duplicity will unravel in scandal, but in the meantime, over the next 18 years he manages during his homebound summers to impregnate his wife Mary Ann 10 times.
Only six of those children survive childhood. Fowler taps three of them to serve as alternating witnesses to the Booth family saga. John is not one of them.
The strategy may seem counterintuitive — would we be reading this book if not for John? — but it works brilliantly. The siblings’ varied ages, temperaments and angles of vision collide and overlap like a kaleidoscope, reflecting ever-changing internal family alliances and recurring quarrels. Each one carries emotional scars from growing up in their chaotic household amid their father’s bouts of alcoholic madness.
Each one also agrees that John is their melancholic mother’s golden boy, the son who can do no wrong even when he was doing his worst. She champions him even when he helps instigate a student uprising at the all-boys boarding school he and his younger brother Joe attend for a time. Is it his desire to fit in with his classmates, the wealthy sons of slave-owning Southerners, that initiates his avid support of slavery and intense vilification of abolitionists?
The most poignant sibling voice belongs to quiet, unsung Rosalie. The family’s second-born child, she assumes the thankless role of caregiver, not just for all the younger siblings as they arrive, one by one by one, but also for her mother, who, when she is not preoccupied with nursing a newborn, is overwhelmed by grief for the four children she has buried. So attuned to her mother’s moods is Rosalie that she takes on the job of communing with their ghosts so her mother won’t have to. So cautious and yielding to the wishes of others is she that she lets her domineering father persuade her to refuse the ardent circus lion tamer who proposes to her — and instead stays home to serve her family, as she always has. Taken for granted by everyone around her, she in time learns to take for granted, too, that when the babies she lovingly cares for grow to adulthood, they will leave her behind as abruptly as the siblings who died, John most brutally of all.
Rosalie also reveals how from earliest childhood they were exposed to the facts of slavery, though she finds it difficult to fathom why some of their dark-skinned Maryland neighbors are enslaved and others free. Joe Hall, for instance, who starts running the Booth farm in 1822, has been able to buy his own freedom but needs $500 more to purchase wife Ann’s — and still more to purchase the freedom of their children. Junius and Mary Ann don’t own enslaved people but lease them from the enslaving farmers who live nearby, thus depending on slavery even while declaring their opposition to it. Ditto their children, except for John, who asserts in a letter he leaves to be read after his death, “This country was formed for the white not the black man.”
Edwin, 10 years Rosalie’s junior, suffers quietly from his self-absorbed parents’ inattention to anything he does, however hard he tries to impress them. So when he follows his father into the family business as an actor, he is startled to discover his apparent gift for garnering the applause of strangers. Predictably, Junius criticizes him, insulted that his son has rejected his histrionic bombast for a more contemplative, naturalistic approach. Edwin’s growing fame similarly rankles John, who has also fallen into the family business. Always more popular and athletic than Edwin, despite being two years younger, John can’t shake his childhood craving to best and bully him.
Then there is Asia, spoiled, quick-tempered and closest to John. On his last visit to her, just months before the assassination, he asks her to place in her household safe a slew of documents that she never thinks to read. But federal investigators do. The very presence in her home of documents confirming John’s plans to do away with President Lincoln automatically casts suspicion on Asia and her family as co-conspirators. Yet even after moving to England with her husband and children to escape the stigma of association, she embarks on her own lost cause to redeem the family name. She completes a memoir of her father and composes a separate manuscript focused on memories of her brother. Written with loving admiration of one of the world’s most reviled men, “John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir” did not see publication until 1938.
Fowler has based her telling of this tale on solid historical research. She also intersperses her narrative with excerpts from Lincoln’s speeches and other historical commentaries on the intensifying conflict between North and South. But there will be no exit from the Booth family drama, or the theater of the Civil War, until we arrive at Washington, D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. The actors have long left the stage, Fowler notes, but the ghosts remain, still haunting us today.
Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.”
By Karen Joy Fowler
Putnam. 480 pp. $28
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