The United States is on the brink of civil war. The nation’s political landscape has been polarized over issues of racism and individual liberty. Political violence threatens to rock the foundations of our democracy. And Abraham Lincoln is about to take office.
At times, antebellum America can seem eerily similar to post-MAGA America, especially as political discourse becomes increasingly volatile. While many have drawn attention to these similarities over the past several years, a commonality that hasn’t gotten enough attention is the emotional toll exacted in such times of unrest and polarization.
In her 2022 novel, “Booth,” author Karen Joy Fowler tackles this emotional toll through a unique lens. Her historical fiction novel, longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, centers around the eclectic family of John Wilkes Booth (yes, that John Wilkes Booth), the interpersonal relationships that shaped the Booth legacy and the assassination that eventually shattered it. What results is a thoroughly researched and hauntingly tragic portrait of one of America’s most infamous families and a pensive exploration of sibling bonds.
“Booth” focuses surprisingly little on John himself. Rather, most of the narrative focuses on his massive family, headed by eccentric patriarch, drunkard and renowned Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth. Junius’s progeny were plentiful and diverse: Edwin, widely considered one of the best Hamlets of all time; Junius “June” Jr., a moderately successful actor who settled down with a woman whose acting career overshadowed his own; Asia, a fierce and passionate woman who later emigrated to England to become a writer; Rosalie, the eldest, whom Fowler simply describes as “neither dead nor beautiful”; and of course John, whose defection to the Confederate cause put him at odds with his whole family. The reader follows their lives as they grapple with the legacy and trauma their father Junius wrought, for better or for worse.
And what a legacy he left — Fowler paints a man larger than life itself. Junius is Lear, Hamlet and Richard III all in one. Not only did he play each of these roles on stage over the course of his 30-year acting career (to great critical acclaim), his very personality embodies the melodrama inherent to the stage. His antics seem ripped out of an absurdist Shakespearean drama: He held a funeral for a pigeon due to his belief in the sanctity of all life, and he would crow like a rooster in the middle of stage productions.
The chaos of his existence was unrelenting. But as charmingly outlandish as Junius could be, his capricious nature oftentimes took darker turns: He flew into drunken rages, becoming verbally abusive with an eloquence only a dramatist could manage; he abandoned a wife and child in England to elope with the mother of Edwin and Co. in America. And his children — especially Rosalie — are forced to pick up the pieces when he’s finished.
Fowler possesses a mastery of subtlety and distinct voices that bolsters characters beyond Junius. Asia’s personality, for example, isn’t stated as much as it is experienced by the reader. Fowler introduces Asia as an implacable and spoiled child, and as she develops, the intensity of her emotions (both positive and negative) remains. Asia is passionate, stubborn and ruthless. In one heated exchange between Asia and another character, Asia spits out an insult, and Fowler writes, “She means it as only Asia can,” an example of how understated Fowler’s prose is at times. But Asia is also deeply caring. Her deep love for her brothers led her to go to enormous lengths to break through to John when he spiraled into extremism.
Another way in which Fowler renders her characters in vibrant colors is through her use of free indirect discourse, which refers to third-person narration that retains elements of first-person narration, such as a character’s thoughts or feelings. By aligning the ostensibly objective third-person narrator with the character focused on in the chapter, the novel gives insight into both details unknowable to the characters and details knowable only to the characters.
Multiple times, Fowler alludes to future events in the lives of the people she’s discussing, such as when she contrasts Asia’s reaction to John’s drift from the family to her desperation to hear “someone, anyone, say something nice about John” years after Lincoln’s assassination. “Booth” is a novel that relishes in the trauma of the past, present and future, and free indirect discourse allows Fowler to make use of all three to fully develop her characters, contextualizing every action in who they were, are and will be.
It’s difficult to discuss the Booths without mentioning John Wilkes Booth, and though he isn’t the backbone of the novel, the complexities of familial bonds are explored through the tensions he has with the other siblings. Readers will know John as the man who murdered Abe Lincoln, but for the Booths, he was family. The cruel reality Fowler mercilessly exposes with John is that a loved one doesn’t have to die to be lost to the world. Like many today have come to realize, the rabbit hole of radicalization is subtle and unforgiving, mutating loved ones before those around them even realize it. We see this happen to John through the lens of his concerned siblings.
In the lead-up to the war, he expresses Southern sympathies and pro-slavery attitudes, but these attitudes seem as toothless as the blustering of any man with a bloated ego (at one point in the novel, John dubiously claims his “brains are worth 20 men”). He writes speeches for Northern audiences in support of slavery, quoting Shakespeare (ever the dramatist), declaring “The North is robbing the South of her good name.” Still, for a time before the war, he remained loyal to the Union.
John gradually starts pulling away from his family until Asia, with whom he is closest, realizes there’s a “whole world” he hasn’t been telling her about. But none of the siblings realize the depth to which John has dug. His secessionist sympathies nearly cause him to come to blows with Edwin, and the rifts in families that so often result from political differences become a chasm. Fowler shows how quiet and insidious extremism can be and how easily it can happen to those we love, given the right circumstances.
That being said, the novel isn’t perfect. Its biggest shortcoming is its excessive length, clocking in at just over 460 pages. “Booth” is a very character-driven novel, with the bulk of it marinating in the daily drama of your standard dysfunctional family: new jobs, old love interests, family deaths, summer flings, trips abroad and school fights. In the way of plot, not much actually happens, and the most titillating event in the lives of the Booth family — the assassination of Abraham Lincoln — doesn’t occur until the book is almost finished.
This in and of itself is not the issue; the slice-of-life approach of the novel allows readers to become intimately acquainted with each member of the family, and it centers the focus from an isolated historical event to the human lives affected by it. Nonetheless, I found myself frequently questioning when the novel would end and how much more Fowler could squeeze out. As Shakespeare writes in Hamlet, “More matter with less art” would’ve been nice.
The other major topic Fowler doesn’t adequately address is how interwoven racism is with the fabric of the story. Race isn’t ignored in the novel (there are lengthy discussions of how the Black lives in the radius of the Booth family fit into the narrative), nor is John’s racism; however, the role of racism and what it means is ignored. One passage struck me in particular, in which Fowler ponders the 1863 New York Draft Riots.
“Were the riots a criminal enterprise, a secessionist attack, a racial massacre?” Fowler writes. “Or something else, something more formless and ancient? People, stripped of restraint and consequence, to be what they really are.”
But all I could think when I read that was, “What could be more formless and ancient than racism and bigotry?” This seemingly inconsequential passage is emblematic of Fowler’s approach to racism: She acknowledges it exists and played a role in the Civil War, but she doesn’t seem to understand just how fundamental it is to understanding what happened.
In spite of these failings, “Booth” is a stunning accomplishment of historical fiction. Karen Joy Fowler communicates the complexities of family bonds in a way that few other authors have and does so in a context more timely than anyone would like. She deepens the tragedy of John Wilkes Booth’s treasonous crime by building a family up to be shattered by it. “Booth” certainly deserved to be longlisted for the Booker Prize and should be read by anyone in search of a compelling family drama.
Daily Arts Writer Tate LaFrenier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.