Skip to main content
PBS logo

Search - Booth

Author: Karen Joy Fowler
In 1822, a secret family moves into a secret cabin some thirty miles northeast of Baltimore, to farm, to hide, and to bear ten children over the course of the next sixteen years. Junius Booth -- breadwinner, celebrated Shakespearean actor, and master of the house in more ways than one -- is at once a mesmerizing talent and a man of terrifying in...  more »
ISBN-13: 9780593331439
ISBN-10: 0593331435
Publication Date: 3/8/2022
Pages: 480
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.

4 stars, based on 2 ratings
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Book Type: Hardcover
Other Versions: Paperback
Members Wishing: 22
Reviews: Member | Amazon | Write a Review

Top Member Book Reviews

aprillynn avatar reviewed Booth on + 74 more book reviews
Helpful Score: 2
Interesting fiction novel on the family of John Wilkes Booth. I had no idea his family's celebrity status as famous actors and his dad Junius Booth was a modern day Brad Pitt (complete with cheating scandals!) or that his brother Edwin saved Abe Lincoln's son at a train station. So many interesting facts depicting how JWB life was shaped and the effects his actions had on his family as their reputation and legacy was ruined. At times, the book seemed to drag and at 400+ pages was a lengthy read.
I'd love to see this turned into a movie!
Read All 2 Book Reviews of "Booth"

Please Log in to Rate these Book Reviews

maura853 avatar reviewed Booth on + 542 more book reviews
Interesting, and at times moving. But ultimately disappointing because of the way it holds its subjects at arm's length.

I think Karen Joy Fowler is a great, interesting writer, even when she doesn't exactly hit the mark. "Sarah Canary" is a fascinating novel that isn't about exactly what you think it's about. I loved "The Imaginary Detective" (very much swimming against the tide of popular opinion) and found it a deeply moving story of what it's like to be the Last (wo)Man Standing of your whole family, and how you move on from that.

I saw echoes of the themes of both of those novels in Booth -- a long, complicated, well-researched, ambitious narrative that isn't exactly about what it appears to be about, on the surface. And a story about how you survive your family (or don't, as it may be). I really enjoyed that, and enjoyed observing how Fowler orchestrates the resonances thrumming along beneath the stories of 19th-century Shakespearean actor Junius Booth Sr., his wife, and his 10 children. Children who included, of course, the one everyone remembers for all the wrong reasons -- John Wilkes Booth, the narcissistic Confederate sympathiser who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

Fowler is on record, both in interviews and, immediately, in the Author's Note at the end of the novel, as saying that she was determined not to let the focus drift onto John Wilkes -- that, as the title suggests, this is the story of the Booth family, as a family. Part of that story -- superficially the most dramatic part -- comes at the end, as the survivors must deal with the anguish (both personal and public) caused by the terrible action of a difficult but still beloved brother. But the assassination isn't the whole story -- there's enough drama in the lives of even the lesser Booths for a whole novel for any one of them.

And that, I think is the problem, the reason why this didn't blow me away as thoroughly as I really wanted it to. Because she has a cast of, well, dozens if not thousands (as well as the major Booths, the reader's attention is drawn to other family members, servants, friends, acquaintances, bystanders ...) Fowler is handling quite a juggling act -- over the course of almost 500 pages, the extreme focus shifts back and forth from oldest daughter Rosalie (spinster victim of a classic Victoria-era "failure to launch" scenario), to youngest daughter Asia (probably, for her narcissism, selfishness and superficial attractiveness, our stand-in for her baby brother John) and the star of the second generation, the actor who almost single-handedly reinvented the stage interpretation of Shakespeare, Edwin. Each "book" of the novel recounts the family dramas, tragedies, successes and setbacks from the perspective (NOT "point of view," exactly) of one of these siblings, each one moving the story along, each one giving a slightly different spin to the family mythology ...

As Fowler says about the mysterious circumstances of death of a family friend, as a Confederate prisoner in a Washington DC prison in 1862, "It all depends on who you ask."

The problem is that, there are so many perspectives, and so much detail, that at time Booth reads like notes for a novel, rather than ... the novel. That there's an awful lot to take in (and little help from the novelist in curating the detail) before we get to The Point. That the characters, even the main characters, are held at arm's length by a resolutely distanced omniscient narrator, rather than allowing us to have, yes, their "point of view." That the members of the Booth family, every one of them, feel alien and distanced from us, even as Fowler's subtext suggests that their lives, and their circumstances aren't that different from our, today.

And Fowler is very good at that. Hints and whispers that say doesn't this [character, event, reaction] remind you of something?

For example -- after John Brown's abortive attack on Harper's Ferry in 1859, a group of proto-Confederates (with whom John Wilkes was probably involved) march to the White House, waving swords and muskets, expecting to be welcomed with open arms by pro-slavery President Buchanan. Except that, it seems, he sleeps right through their noisy night-time demonstration. The Governor of Virginia (who has ambitions to replace Buchanan) says that

"When he's president ... he will never sleep though an invading army. It's the least really, one can ask of a president, that he be awake when troops descend on the Capitol."

Or, not actively encouraging the invading army, perhaps ...

Fowler speeds up the pace, as we approach the final act: throughout, the chapters focused on the three Booth siblings are inter-cut with brief asides telling us what's happening with a certain ambitious lawyer from Illinois -- the Lincoln "updates" provide some tension, and a sense of events outside the hothouse of the Booth family. A sense of the "convergence of the twain," that the fates of the Booths -- all of the Booths -- and Lincoln are approaching their terrible collision. And, again, Fowler handles the account of familiar events in Ford's Theater beautifully -- with the sense that it's all very mundane. Until it isn't. And everything changes, for the Booths, and for the country.

"How wonderful to hear Mary laugh like this. It's that pleasure, more than the line, that starts Lincoln laughing himself. Then he hears something else, but there is no time to understand what it is."

So, I clearly admired it, but I'm only giving it 3- & 1/2 stars? I could try to clarify my reservations by adding that its heart is in the same place as "Lincoln in the Bardo," a novel that I thoroughly and unreservedly admire. I felt as a work of fiction it suffered in comparison to George Saunders' novel, which does something very interesting with its fictionalisation of historical characters and events. Reimagines them completely, and moves on from the facts, while staying emotionally true to them. Something that, sadly and regretfully, I feel that Fowler's novel just misses.