In an Author’s Note appended to her sixth novel, Booth, Karen Joy Fowler explains: “I did not want to write a book about John Wilkes. This is a man who craved attention and has gotten too much of it; I didn’t think he deserved mine. And yet there is no way around the fact that I wouldn’t be writing about his family if he weren’t who he was, if he hadn’t done what he did.”
Instead, she brings to life the forgotten family members and historic times that shaped Lincoln’s assassin. In another surprising move, Fowler also moves the clan’s famous actor father largely offstage – though the British-born Shakespearean Junius Brutus Booth’s alcoholic outbursts and absences scar all. Instead, the novel is narrated from the third-person perspective of three of John’s 10 siblings: His older sister Rosalie, who largely cares for the family, and is haunted by her dead siblings; Edwin, who also becomes a famous actor; and the youngest daughter, Asia, who suffers especially because of her John’s actions.
Through them we learn about the particulars and the challenges of life in antebellum Maryland where they have their home and about the country they travel across, bouncing from theater to theater. As Top Ten contributor Ken Kalfus observed in his Financial Times review: “Booth contains enlightening descriptions of American theater in the 19th century. The crowds are rambunctious, the theatrical producers are unscrupulous and the actors are unreliable, yet theater emerges as a vital form of American culture. Fowler recalls how acting itself was transformed in these years, from theatricalism to a more natural style – and then, during Edwin’s later career, a taste for the dramatic effects of suppressed emotion.”
Famous figures and events also grace the story. Henry Clay, John Brown, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War’s great battles and, of course, Abraham Lincoln, provide context for the coming infamy.
While John is a supporting player, Fowler creates memorable portraits of his siblings. In one lyrical passage, she writes:
Rosalie, the oldest daughter, is sitting on the steps that lead down to Beech Spring, watching her baby brother and sister make boats out of leaves. She is thinking of Ophelia, drifting in her sodden gown, her hair spread over the water, her face surrounded by flowers. She is dreaming of what it would be like to be beautiful and dead. The month is March, the year 1838. In July, Rosalie will be fifteen years old. She finds Love Tragic more satisfying to contemplate than Love Triumphant.
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.
Karen Joy Fowler’s Top Ten List
1. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72)
2. The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1610)
3. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605, 1615)
4. The Tale of Genji by Shikibu Murasaki (c. 1001–1010 c.e.)
5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (1595)
6. Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
8. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)
10. Dubliners by James Joyce (1916)