“Booth” by Karen Joy Fowler. (G.P.Putnam’s Sons. 2022.)
Generational family dynamics of the Booth family (yes, THAT Booth) are on full display. The home front dysfunction that contributed to John Wilkes Booth’s mania is not surprising. At times I felt like I was reading “stranger than fiction” facts from a national tabloid.
In a preface, the author states she wanted to examine how a family coped when a member became a monster. She also explained that she deliberately didn’t want to make John Wilkes the central character, lest it give him more undeserved attention. Well, for me it didn’t work.
I doubt most people would buy the book if the Booth family weren’t infamous for their 9th child’s assassination of Lincoln. But being the 9th child, John Wilkes comes very late in a book that shares some interesting family tidbits, but also a lot of mundane, tedious, irrelevant sibling details.
The book needed an editor with a much stronger hand. Was it about how a family nurtured a someday assassin? Or about the fall out for a family coping once one of their own becomes a notorious assassin?
Most of the book focused on Booth’s father and to a far lesser extent his oppressed, grief-stricken mother. Father was a mentally ill, alcoholic bigamist, avid vegetarian and anti-slaver who “leased” slaves rather than owning them. Oh, and he happened to be the premier world famous Shakespearean actor who toured nationally and internationally 9 months out of every year. See what I mean, family dysfunction was predictable,… but by-golly the animals were safe around him; he ate nothing that had eyes.
Dad’s personality make-up was a scary brew. Mental illness was exacerbated by alcoholism and an overwhelming need to be endlessly exceptional and the center of attention. He suffered from and acted upon delusions of grandeur. For instance when he was on tour, one of his young daughters died and was buried. When coming home he was beyond grief-stricken and his mania led him to believe he could bring his little girl back to life. He literally exhumed the her body and tried to prove it! Guess what, he failed. He had no clue how scary his irrational behavior was to his family and viewing neighbors—or more likely, he just didn’t care. It was all about him.
As the book chronicled each family member’s life, the author went all over the place, which made it more confusing than interesting. I didn’t feel any new light was shed on how the family survived the most scandalous event of all—the assassination. There wasn’t any analysis of each person’s reflections or even small attempts at self-analysis.
Most frustrating for me was how the author failed to convincingly show HOW John Wilkes Booth evolved into such a rabid Southern Confederate who believed Abe wanted to be King, thus deserved to die. It was mentioned he attended a boarding school when young for a short time and was influenced by a group of wealthy
southern classmates. But surely that exposure alone doesn’t explain JWB’s extreme transition from his family’s viewpoints.
Throughout the book there are short references to Abe Lincoln’s life path as compared to the Booth family’s. Both had alcoholic fathers, (JWB and his male siblings inherited it, Abe resisted,) both families were disabled by extreme grief as a result of child mortality, both suffered from some degree of mental illness (JWB was completely overcome by it, Abe was not,) both families believed in foretelling prophecies (Booth via visions, Lincoln via dreams,) and both JWB and Abe had always wanted to make enduring names for themselves—(both succeeded albeit in vastly different ways.) Ironically, both heads of household believed in the Union and were—at least philosophically—against slavery.
Probably the weakest part of the author’s writing came from the narrator doing far too much “telling” about character details and far too little time “showing” how those details transformed into concrete behavior or human interactions. (The author has other best selling books and book awards, so she can write better.)
If you’re curious about the sensational details, get the book at the library rather than buy one. Unlike John Wilkes Booth’s infamous bullet, the book “Booth” just didn’t hit the mark. In my humble opinion, of course.
Thank you! I think I'll not bother. A few years back, when I was still editor of Bay Weekly, an inexperienced writer who'd done a Booth assassination tour offered locally queried me on a story about it. Eventually I agreed and worked on it with her, but all along I had reservations about giving space to the assassin—worse because Lincoln was my neighbor as I lived 14 years in Springfield, Illinois.