Compelling novel about the family life of the man who shot Lincoln

Review: Vivien Horler

Booth, by Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)

How would you cope if one of your family was the shooter in a mass killing? What happens to love when the person you love is a monster?

These questions sprang to the mind of best-selling novelist Karen Joy Fowler during a spate of mass shootings in the United States. And then she began wondering about the family of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin who famously shot President Abraham Lincoln.

He was the second youngest of six children, and was doted on by his mother and several of his siblings, especially his sisters.

Before I read this magnificent novel I knew absolutely nothing about Booth other than what everyone knows. I hadn’t realised he was famous – long before the shooting – as an actor. And so were members of his family: his British-born father Junius Brutus, older brother Junius jun and Edwin, described by Wikipedia as the foremost American Shakespearean actor of his day.

For many years the family lived on a farm about 50km from Baltimore in Maryland, and for much of that time father Junius was away, acting, to put food on the table. But he was home often enough to sire his children: 10 of them eventually, although only six survived to adulthood.

The Booth children had an apparently idyllic childhood on the farm, and yet there were tragedies and tensions. Foremost among them was the loss of one young son to smallpox, and two to cholera. Another child also died.

Then there was the matter of relationship between Junius and the children’s mother, Mary Ann. The children all assumed their parents were married, but it turned out they weren’t – he was married to a woman in England. This didn’t go down well in early 1800s Maryland, especially when the wife came to the US to point out Junius’s sins.

Grief and other facts saw Junius became an incorrigible alcoholic, and for some years Edwin had to travel with his father as his caretaker. In the process he was  exposed to the minutiae of the theatre, which he later turned to his advantage.

Junius had beliefs ahead of his time, being a vegetarian and announcing that the farm was a sanctuary for all God’s creatures, even venomous snakes.

Junius did not own slaves, but employed several whom he had leased from neighbouring slaveowners. One was Joe Hall, who ran the farm in Junius’s absence, and one is Joe’s wife, Ann, who worked in the house. Joe and Ann were saving up to buy Ann her freedom, and when they achieved that, they started saving to buy their own children.

John Wilkes was rebel from an early age, and soon became adept with a gun. After his father died, he liked to shoot things, including a neighbour’s turkey, another neighbour’s pig (“The pig was trespassing on our land,” he protested), and a neighbour’s dog. The farm was no longer a sanctuary

In her author’s note, Fowler says as she began this project she immediately faced a conundrum: she didn’t want to write a book about John Wilkes. “This is a man who craved attention and has gotten too much of it; I didn’t think he deserved mine.”

But she concedes she would not have written about the family if he hadn’t done what he did.

The novel is set in the decades leading up to the American Civil War (1861-1865) and immediately after it. Slavery was a major cause of the war, and unlike Junius sen, John Wilkes became a secessionist who opposed Lincoln’s liberal views.

(Not that they were that liberal: “There is a physical difference between the two [races], which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality… I… am in favour of the race to which I belong, having the superior position.”

(But Lincoln also added: “…there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. … in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal… and the equal of every living man.”)

On April 14, five days after the Confederate General Robert E Lee surrendered in Virginia, and giddy with relief the north had won the war, Lincoln and his wife Mary went to Ford’s Theatre in Washington to see a performance of Our American Cousin.

Feelings at the end of the war were running high, and some senior people in the government believe it was dangerous for Lincoln to be out and about in public. But the Lincolns went anyway. His usual bodyguard was off duty, and his replacement was fond of a drink.

Using his theatre access – John Wilkes regularly performed at Ford’s Theatre – got to the door of the Lincoln party’s box. The bodyguard was not there.

The rest is history.

After the shooting, John Wilkes fled, leaping out of the box on to the stage and breaking his leg. But he got away, only to be cornered in a barn and shot by Union soldiers 12 days later. He was 26 years old.

The family is devastated, unable to go out in public. Several members are arrested on the assumption they were in on the assassination. Edwin eschews the stage for months. Nothing is ever the same.

Booth is a novel, but it follows the known facts. Fowler has been clever in lightly evoking the politics of the time lightly. She puts us in the picture, but doesn’t get bogged down.

The dynamics of this troubled family are examined and imagined, and the book makes for compelling reading.

But Booth is not simply a historical novel – it has resonance today. As early as 1838 a 29-year-old Lincoln, in his first major speech, warns of two possible threats to the American republic. Fowler indirectly quotes him: “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.”

Think Hitler. Think Trump. And others closer to home.

  • Booth has been longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize.



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