From the Man Booker finalist and bestselling author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves comes an epic and intimate novel about the family behind one of the most infamous figures in American history: John Wilkes Booth.
In 1822, a secret family moves into a secret cabin some thirty miles northeast of Baltimore, to farm, to hide, and to bear ten children over the course of the next sixteen years. Junius Booth—breadwinner, celebrated Shakespearean actor, and master of the house in more ways than one—is at once a mesmerizing talent and a man of terrifying instability. One by one the children arrive, as year by year, the country draws frighteningly closer to the boiling point of secession and civil war.
As the tenor of the world shifts, the Booths emerge from their hidden lives to cement their place as one of the country’s leading theatrical families. But behind the curtains of the many stages they have graced, multiple scandals, family triumphs, and criminal disasters begin to take their toll, and the solemn siblings of John Wilkes Booth are left to reckon with the truth behind the destructively specious promise of an early prophecy.
Booth is a startling portrait of a country in the throes of change and a vivid exploration of the ties that make, and break, a family.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Infamous assassin and racist John Wilkes Booth was raised in a staunchly abolitionist family of Shakespearean actors. This tension shapes Karen Joy Fowler’s sweeping yet intimate portrait of American discord. Set in the years leading up to the Civil War, Booth begins on a remote Maryland farm and charts the domestic dramas and political fortunes that shaped President Lincoln’s killer, from the painful rifts between siblings to the seething, volatile anger of an emergent populist movement. Fowler’s elegant prose reads almost like poetry, which only highlights the novel’s building sense of doom. This is historical fiction at its very best: urgent, provocative, and unnervingly timely.
The Booth in the title of Booker-shortlisted Fowler's razor-sharp latest (after We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves) is John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's assassin. The author approaches "Johnny" obliquely, through his family circle in Maryland. Booth's father, Junius Brutus Booth, is a Shakespearean actor whose masterly Richard III and "towering genius" are offset by episodes of "mad freaks." (He's also a drunken failure of a father.) Cycles of depression triggered by Junius's endless indiscretions and prolonged absences define Booth's mother. Three siblings in this theatrical family are central: eldest sister Rosalie is "painfully shy" and has scoliosis; brother Edwin, like Junius a "star" actor, is prone to drink; and beautiful sister Asia is "strong and stormy," "ice and iron." Others, such as the Halls a Black family, some of whom are free and others enslaved also play parts. All illuminate the depressingly bizarre rearing of Johnny and the disgruntled, attention-seeking actor he becomes. As Congress passes the 13th amendment to abolish slavery and General Lee surrenders, Booth's acting career falters and his Southern sympathies rise, building toward the fateful night that will forever define him and his family. Fowler sets the stage in remarkable prose, and in her account of the Booth family's move from rural Maryland to Baltimore in 1846 ("Instead of frogs, choruses of drunks sing on the street after dark. Instead of birdcalls, factory whistles"), she subtly conveys the depth of her characters, noting that Johnny, at seven, takes on the "city name" Wilkes. Throughout, the nuanced plot is both historically rigorous and richly imagined. This is a winner.