As it happens, I have read two historical novels in fairly close succession. In the first, The Birth House, I felt that the plot was being driven by the desire to draw in as much historical detail as possible. In this second book, Booth, there is the opposite scenario: fidelity to the events and personalities has meant that plot development is slow and measured. The events of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln are well-known (probably much more to American readers than to Australian ones) and the author’s intent here is to widen her lens to look at the family of John Wilkes Booth and the effect of his radicalization and its resultant crime on the Booth family more broadly. Much like Jacinda Ardern’s refusal to name the Christchurch terrorist, Karen Joy Fowler does not dwell on the assassination as such, but more the events leading up to and following on from it.
The book also clearly locates itself in the present day, although it is only in the Afterword and Acknowledgments that she identifies Donald Trump by name. But the first of the Lincoln-related chapters starts with an epigraph from Lincoln himself asking Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch will at some stage spring up amongst us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs. (p. 5) The theme of political violence, both through civil war and through the acts of an individual, throbs underneath the book.
The historical John Wilkes Booth is not the only Booth in this story. Instead, it is the whole family of Booths- father and sons. It opens with Junius Booth who emigrates with his family to Baltimore where he becomes a celebrated Shakespearean actor. Several of his sons follow in his footsteps: June, a rather unsuccessful actor; John Wilkes who was to become (in)famous for other reasons; and Edwin, who becomes the most famous and wealthy of them all, although for many years in his father’s shadow. Joe, the youngest son, is the only one not to follow his father’s theatrical career. Rosalie, his eldest daughter never marries and finds herself subject to her brothers’ plans and domestic arrangements, while her sister Asia does marry and has several children. The family itself displays different political leanings (shades of Trumpism here too) with the increasing radicalization of John in the face of his siblings’ varying degrees of support for Lincoln and abolition. Each member of the family was affected differently by John’s actions. All are shunned, with instant career implications for the brothers who were working as actors. Some family members blamed themselves, or each other, and all distanced themselves from the assassination.
The narrative intertwines the stories of Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth as they both move towards the assassination that we know will happen by the end of the book. There is an irregular structure within the Booth stories. At times the narrative just flows chronologically, but at other times the author takes each family member in turn to explore events from their perspective (but still with omniscient narrator voice). I found this inconsistency rather annoying: I prefer a structure to be sustained throughout. There are many small chapters- rather too many for my liking- headed with a roman numeral, evoking a 19th century novel. The narrative is in the present tense, which worked well in highlighting the contingent and unfolding nature of events.
As she explains in the afterword, Fowler has blended fact and fiction. The Booth family has been much researched, both at the time in trying to make sense of the assassination, and later in historicizing it. Rosalie as the eldest daughter was the least defined historically, which gave author greatest scope for invention, albeit within the constraints of the spinster daughter role.
Karen Joy Fowler is explicit in her linking Lincoln’s assassination and the rise of Donald Trump. Would the book work just as well without these current-day references? I suspect that it would, although I wonder how a pro-Trump reader would react to her clearly anti-Trump stance. As it is, it is a well-researched fictionalized telling of a family story that wears its research lightly, but subjects itself to the constraints of facts in its plot. For me, this is historical fiction with fidelity.
My rating: 8.5/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library