A few years ago, I enjoyed reading Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” So when “Booth” came out, I immediately picked it up.
“Booth” explores a complex family of Shakespearean actors in 19th century America, one of whom you’ll surely recognize. The family supports abolition, animal rights to the point of violence, and intellectualism. They end up in rural Bel Air, Md., Near Baltimore. Junius Booth, head of the family, leaves a pregnant Mary Ann while he goes on tour for nine months out of the year. Nearly all of his life he’ll spend on tour. Alcoholism derails Junius’ career at various points in his life; his passion onstage is an asset but proves to be a liability in real life. Drunken brawls occur often so his friends and even his son act as almost his guardians.
Left alone for long periods, Mary Ann survives thanks to the charity of her neighbors and a slave. Despite their abolitionist leanings, the Booths hire a slave from a neighbor. To appease their consciences, they pay both the master and the slave. The family loses three children to cholera and another to smallpox, sending Mary Ann into a deep depression. Junius mourns deeply but is able to go on with the show.
From then on, she’s only truly present in her surviving six kids’ lives, albeit intermittently. Rosalie, the oldest daughter, steps in as caretaker from an early age. She dotes on John Wilkes throughout his life but sees his flaws, too. All of this happens while the country is in the middle of seismic changes. The family, as many did, splits along political lines.
John Wilkes navigated the 19th century political landscape far differently from his family. Most of the Booth family sympathized with the North; the future killer of a president was deeply influenced by his time at a Southern boarding school. On a trip to a classmate’s home, he is struck by the “well run” family plantation. In contrast, his family hides slaves on their way to freedom.
John Wilkes uses his easy access as an actor to spy for the South, and he assassinates Abraham Lincoln at a theater. Only a few chapters describe this terrible loss; afterward it focuses on the family’s shocked reaction to his violent attack.
“Booth” is an exploration of a divided time in our past through the lens of a deeply troubled family.
“Booth” by Karen Joy Fowler was published by GP Putnam on Monday. It retails for $ 28.
Amy Stoothoff works for Inklings Bookshop. She and other Inklings staffers review books in Sunday’s Explore section every week.