Booth by Karen Joy Fowler


Karen Joy Fowler’s book We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves remains one of my favorite books ever. It took me awhile to be prepared to take on this book about the Booth family, but I am so glad I did. I think it is brilliant. And I am glad I listened to the audiobook; at first I was disconcerted at the firehose level of words coming my way, but ultimately the big picture became clear. I credit the reader, January LaVoy, for  making this audiobook work so well.

In the Author’s Note Fowler tells us that in the aftermath of a mass shooting she began thinking about the families of shooters. The very famous family of John Wilkes Booth came to mind; she explores the connections of the parents and siblings to each other and to him without centering him in the story. On the questions of writing a fictional book about a historical family, she says one complication is the mythologies that develop around a dramatic event such as that assassination.  And of course she invented things to tell what she hopes is essentially a true story of the family.

I will recount what I want to remember of her telling that I believe is factual about that remarkable family. The father, Junius Brutus Booth, became a famous actor in Britain; he recreated that fame in the US, arriving in 1821. He and his wife had 10 children, including three who were actors:  Junius, Jr., Edwin, and John Wilkes. The family’s life was chaotic because although he made money by acting, he was away much of the time and then there was his drinking and erratic behavior. The family was resolutely opposed to slavery, lead by Junius.

Edwin was taken out of school to travel with his father to try to keep him from drinking. After he had become an actor, he too began to drink but stopped after the death of his beloved wife and never drank again. He became a celebrity, building on his father’s fame and was very rich. He had money enough to support all the family in great style. Junius, Jr. and John Wilkes also were actors and once the three were on stage together.

One passage that I found particularly affecting and of interest was the family’s experience during the draft riots in 1863. They was living in New York City and the prosperous were especially vulnerable to the German and Irish rioters. Having an injured Union soldier and a Black man in the house was dangerous as the gangs began going house to house. The violence against random people on the street was chilling to read about.

John was open in his support for the South, alienating him from others in the family, though he had been his mother’s favorite and was much loved by his sister Asia. After the assassination, Edwin is afraid to be seen in public and only goes out late at night when he won’t be seen. He speaks of the day he saved Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert at the train station from injury or perhaps death. After the assassination he received death threats and his fiancé broke off their engagement. Junius and Asia’s husband Sleeper were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy. Asia and Sleeper later left the US and lived the remainder of their lives in Britain. When Edwin finally did return to the stage, he was given a standing ovation when he first appeared.

Karen Joy Fowler, Booth, J.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2022, 470 pages (I listened to the audiobook).

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