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BOOTH by Karen Joy Fowler Kirkus Star


by Karen Joy Fowler

Pub Date: March 8th, 2022
ISBN: 978-0-593-33143-9
Publisher: Putnam

Ostensibly about the family of Shakespearean actors best known for their connection to Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, Fowler’s novel explores tensions surrounding race, politics, and culture in 19th-century America.

Given his upbringing in a vegetarian, strongly anti-slavery, highly literate, freethinking household that even today would be labeled bohemian, how did John became a pro-slavery, pro-secessionist fanatic capable of terrorist murder? And how did his actions affect his surviving family? Alcoholic, eccentrically idealistic Junius Booth is a major star on the British stage when he and his “wife,” Mary, run away to rural Maryland while he is still married to another woman. Of their 10 offspring, six survive past early childhood. Bright oldest daughter Rosalie dotes on charming Johnny but is keenly perceptive about his weaknesses. (In a heartbreaking depiction of Victorian women’s limited options, Rosalie’s own sparkle fades into genteel alcoholism after she's forced to forego education and marriage and become the family caregiver.) Brother Edwin is quiet, responsible, maybe even dull compared to charismatic John, but despite sharing the family addiction to alcohol, Edwin has the discipline, intelligence, and talent that John lacks to succeed as an actor. To his own—and John’s resentful—surprise, Edwin becomes America’s foremost actor, maintaining his prestige despite his brother’s infamy. Staunchly abolitionist and pro-union, Edwin, who once saved Robert Lincoln’s life, and Rosalie are increasingly aghast at John’s increasingly crazed behavior and racist ravings. More conflicted is sister Asia, who shares John’s charm as well as his prickly disposition; after the assassination, she finds herself briefly under suspicion. As the Booths’ story unfolds, Fowler inserts major national events into the narrative, like the Dred Scott case and John Brown’s uprising, along with key moments in Lincoln’s life showing his humanity as well as his public nobility. The historical context she offers is of a pre–Civil War America of deep moral divides, political differences tearing close families apart, populism and fanaticism run amok.

The similarities to today are riveting and chilling.