“Booth: A Novel” by Karen Joy Fowler. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2022. 470 pages, $28 (hardcover).

Karen Joy Fowler is the author of six novels, including “The Jane Austen Book Club” and “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” In “Booth” she focuses on a family famous for several outstanding actors and infamous because one of them assassinated Abraham Lincoln. The book opens in 1822 on a farm, “though it’s half trees, woodland merging into dense forest.” The family moving to this farm has brought a two-room log cabin at significant expense on rollers greased with pig lard and placed it beside Beech Spring, about 30 miles northeast of Baltimore. “This all left the neighbors with the impression that the new owner was a bit crazy, a thought they never had cause to revise.” By 1838 the family has had nine children, four of whom had died. The father of the family is Junius Booth, a Shakespearean actor who is on tour more often than at home. The mother is therefore in charge of things much of the time. The paternal grandfather has come from London to help out during his son’s long absences.

Fowler makes it clear in her comments about her novel that she did not want to focus on John Wilkes Booth. She selects two of his sisters, Rosalie and Asia, and his brother Edwin, perhaps the greatest actor in the family, and she intersperses segments from Lincoln’s life along the way. The children regularly stage scenes from plays their father had acted in, especially “Richard III,” and frequently quote lines from Shakespeare to one another. Junius Booth is a strange bird to say the least. He cannot tolerate any animal, fish, insect or even a plant being killed on his farm. He is also an alcoholic and when he does return periodically from his acting stints he does not bring a lot of money with him. The family is shocked when Junius’ sister’s penniless family shows up uninvited from England to live on the farm. There was barely enough food for the Booth family to survive and now it became much more difficult. Rosalie wonders why her father allowed the Mitchell family to “occupy” the farm, but only gets her answer when Adelaide Booth and her son show up claiming that Junius has deserted his family and that he and Rosie’s mother are not legally married. It becomes clear that the Mitchells were blackmailing Junius over this secret “marriage” and family and they now disappear. Adelaide continues to stalk mother even after a payment of $2,000, but eventually there is a divorce and a new marriage. Junius’ family lives sometimes on the farm and other times in Baltimore, depending on how much money they had.

Because Maryland is a slave state the novel shows the conflicting views on slavery in this border state. Junius does not own slaves, but he hires some to work on the farm and also insists on paying them individually. Most of his family opposes slavery, but Johnny seems to have been more influenced by the private academy he attended, where many of his fellow students came from slaveholding families. Some family members are more nostalgic about life on the farm than others. Edwin, for example, “feels a longing for it all – the way the water smells, branches scraping like violin bows in the wind, cows calling to be milked, fireflies sparking in the grass. Swimming and riding, climbing into the interlaced trees, singing with the slaves and the freemen in the warm evenings, taking the paths to the swamp with the dogs, ever hopeful for squirrels, panting and racing ahead.” Fowler is very skilled at bringing her characters to life in their environment.

Johnny has no interest in farming. He also goes into acting, but insists that he be called John B. Wilkes so that he can make it on his own and not just on his father’s laurels. Edwin takes an arduous journey across the Isthmus to act with Junius in California and does save the family from starvation after his father’s death, but he also inherits his alcoholism. Although Johnny is appalled by John Brown’s raid and even attended his hanging, he “admires men of action, men who live their principles without apology or compromise. Brown is an instrument of evil, but also a Shakespearean hero.” As the Civil War draws to a close tensions mount between Edwin and Johnny, but both perform with their oldest brother June in a performance of “Julius Caesar” in New York in November 1864. The three brothers only needed their dead father Junius with them to play Caesar and make the drama a true family affair. However, Johnny played Marc Antony instead of the assassin Brutus. The author is particularly skillful, however, at conveying the impact of Lincoln’s assassination only months later on each of Johnny’s siblings, both immediately and for the rest of their lives.

It would be interesting to compare this book to Gene Smith’s novel about the Booth family published in 2016, “American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family – Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth.” Although I have not read that one, I suspect from the subtitle that it focuses more on the three most famous actors in the family, rather than on the whole family, as Fowler does. I noticed a few typographical errors and wondered why the author introduces the character of Julia Ward Howe, who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and then calls her Mrs. Ward instead of Mrs. Howe. I also question Fowler’s statement that after Lincoln’s election seven southern states “immediately” secede. South Carolina was actually the only state to secede in 1860 and that was more than a month after the election.

These are minor points, however, and I recommend “Booth” very highly for writing an enjoyable novel that offers historical insights into life in the antebellum border states and also brings to life sibling interactions of both love and rivalry during a very difficult period of American history.

– Reviewed by Richard Weigel, Western Kentucky University History Department.

Recommended for you