Book Review: Booth, Karen Joy Fowler


Junius is the patriarch, a celebrated Shakespearean actor who fled bigamy charges in England, both a mesmerising talent and a man of terrifying instability. As his children grow up in a remote farmstead in 1830s rural Baltimore, the country draws ever closer to the boiling point of secession and civil war.

Of the six Booth siblings who survive to adulthood, each has their own dreams they must fight to realise – but it is Johnny who makes the terrible decision that will change the course of history – the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

“This is a good reminder that no one in the world is a reliable source for their own story.”

John Wilkes Booth is a name that is enshrined in history. Even here in the UK, the man who shot Abraham Lincoln is something of a bogeyman figure, darkness personified, a name to conjure with; just as much as Lincoln remains a saintly figure, the emancipator, the democrat, the hero. I was surprised that when John is born into this novel and we hear his name for the first time I felt a strangely visceral frisson.

In May of 1838, one month after the arrival of the Mitchells, the family’s ninth child is born. The birth progresses easily and no doctor is needed. No stars fall from the sky. No caul sheathes the baby’s face. It’s a boy.

There’s no two-year wait to name him. Grandfather is given the honors and he chooses the name John Wilkes.

But this is all mythology, isn’t it? The saint and his murderer. It does make me wonder sometimes what Lincoln’s legacy would have been like had he lived. Possibly a little like JFK, has the fact of their assassination effectively canonised them in the eyes of history?

But, what were these myths like as people?

This is the task that Karen Joy Fowler seems to have tackled in Booth. And it was exceptionally well achieved. Whilst the assassination is always there, lurking in the final chapters of the book inevitably, Fowler has deliberately relegated both John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln to the background. We focus on the Booth family – and what a family they are! – and our point of view varies between various of John’s many siblings – Rosalie, Edwin, Asia – but never from John himself, nor directly from Lincoln.

Instead we open with a domestic drama. Rosalie is our first narrative voice, narrating her experience of being brought up in the rural, limited and somewhat claustrophobic farm environment surrounded by her brothers and sisters; Mary Anne Holmes, her mother; her absent and alcoholic father Junius Brutus Booth, celebrated Shakespearean actor and eccentric, and fleeing a charge of bigamy from England; and her distant grandfather. Near poverty and living reclusively – as well as perhaps an unconventional (for the nineteenth century) diet without meat – contribute to the tragedy of so many deaths among the Booth children, dead children who continue to haunt Rosalie throughout her life.

Alongside that, there are also moments that suggest the farm is almost a rustic idyll amongst nature, a life marked by the presence of an enslaved family, Joe and Ann Hall and their children. The depiction of slavery is so light touch at this point, filtered through Rosalie’s childish eyes, but the reality to an adult reader is chilling: when her childhood friend, Nelson, Joe and Ann’s son, stops coming to play, Roaslie asks his mum whether he, like her sisters, had died of cholera.

About Nelson she simply said, “Sold.”

Rosalie was relieved.

“Sixty-five dollars,” Ann said.

Rosalie was impressed. At nine years old, she was unable to imagine his life much changed. She assumed that wherever he was, Nelson was building forts, streaking his face with war-paint mud, smiling his gappy smile. If someone paid sixty-five dollars, she thought, they must love Nelson very much.

As the novel progresses, and as national tensions rise, the challenge and difficulty inherent in the concept of slavery becomes much more marked, dividing the Booth family as much as the country – a division that blights them as much as the country.

The civil war, which of course runs through the novel, brought to mind the moment in King Lear when Gloucester is gulled into believing his son Edgar is plotting against him and he laments that

These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend
no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can
reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself
scourged by the sequent effects: love cools,
friendship falls off, brothers divide: in
cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in
palaces, treason; and the bond cracked 'twixt son
and father.

And these Shakespearean echoes is deliberate: alongside the historical narrative, Fowler weaves the family narrative and I found this utterly compelling. The life of a celebrated Shakespeare actor who made Richard III his own, touring America in the nineteenth century – an actor who was far more celebrated and famous than I was aware of, whose life rubbed shoulders with real celebrities – was glorious. In fact, this is a narrative of the life of an acting family as Edwin and Junius and John Wilkes follow their father’s footsteps on the stage with their own glories.

In fact, the Shakespeare that flows through the novel contributes wonderfully to the tone of the story. It is more than just historical fact. Shakespeare itself is so potently mythopoetic as characters invent themselves time and time again that the echoes in the Booths’ own mythmaking – as well as Fowler’s mythmaking of the Booths – feels so apt! Those moments of (in hindsight) terrible prophecy felt particularly Shakespearean: at Edwin’s birth “there was a shower of stars that night, lasting more than an hour”; even more chillingly on John’s birth

a flame rose from the ashes and, shaping itself into an arm, stretched toward the baby as if to knight him. In that flame, Mother said, she could read the word Country, followed by Johnny’s name. And then the arm fell back and faded away.

This was, so far, the most powerful and most enjoyable of the Booker Longlist and it is – for me – a crying shame that it did not reach the shortlist. Whilst deeply embedded in the history of the nineteenth century, there are moments that feel chillingly contemporary. When Lincoln wanrs of to threats to the republic –

The first is found in the lawless actions of the mob, the second in the inevitable rise someday of an aspiring dictator. The gravest peril will come if the mob and the dictator unite –

the last few years of American history seem very much present.

What I Liked

  • The epic human and family drama of the Booths
  • The poignant and powerful depiction of the evils of slavery in
  • The depiction of nineteenth century theatrical life
  • The humour interpsersed with pathos beautifully

What Could Have Been Different

  • I would have liked, even after nearly 500 pages, more….


Overall (including a bonus star for nostalgia)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Plot / Pace:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


Rating: 5 out of 5.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Page Count:

480 pages


Serpent’s Tail


17th March 2022


Amazon, Goodreads

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Booth, Karen Joy Fowler”

  1. It is interesting to think the Booth last name was at a celebrity level before the assassination. If the assassination hadn’t occurred then John Wilkes would have been an after thought compared to his brother and father.

    Liked by 1 person

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