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Writing historical fiction can mean spending a lot of time in the heads of people who do or believe awful things, by contemporary standards. It’s difficult to write sympathetically about a character from the distant past without feeling that you are in some way endorsing aspects of the age: its bias, its brutality, its inequity. One way to get around that is to tell the untold stories of those who lived on the margins—the victims of that inequity and the objects of that bias. But what if the story you’re telling is the villain’s?
From the first page of her new novel Booth, the talented and ambitious Karen Joy Fowler betrays her anxiety about the task she’s set herself. She writes in a nervous author’s note that an interest in the experiences of the families of mass shooters led her to John Wilkes Booth, which immediately presented a problem. “I did not want to write a book about John Wilkes Booth. This is a man who craved attention and has gotten too much of it; I didn’t think he deserved mine.” The note mentions many of the crises of the past few years—those mass shootings, Trump’s election, the uprising of Jan. 6, 2021—amid which Fowler seems to express doubt, in the opening paragraphs of her own book, about whether the book ought to exist at all. She writes, “The tension over this issue—how to write the book without centering John Wilkes—is something I grappled with on nearly every page.” That grappling leaves a mark.
For nearly four decades, Fowler has written restlessly across genre and style, from her first novel Sarah Canary—a frontier tale with a sci-fi twist—to her World Fantasy Award–winning story collections to the literary-pop pleasures of her 2004 bestseller The Jane Austen Book Club. Her most recent novel, 2013’s Booker-shortlisted We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, told a politically engaged family story that, in an unforgettable twist a third of the way through the book, reveals itself as an entirely different kind of tale. In each of these books, she’s shown herself to be a writer who uses the conventions of genre when they suit her—and who is unafraid to invent new ones when they don’t.
In Booth, Fowler addresses the issue of writing a historical novel about a historical bad guy in an innovative way. She doesn’t only expand her novel’s palette, telling the decades-spanning story of the entire Booth family, a clan in which John is one among many until the fateful moment he makes himself the family’s—and the nation’s—villain. She makes the audacious decision to bring a historian’s corrective and contextual voice to her historical fiction, pulling the reader out of the 19th century over and over to provide a 21st century perspective on the attitudes and actions of her characters. This makes a bit of a mess of the novel, but also serves as an intriguing new angle at a problem that’s likely to vex historical fiction writers for decades to come.
John Wilkes Booth is born in 1838, the son of one of the era’s most famous stage actors, Junius Brutus Booth, and the ninth of 10 children. The Booths are a stage family, one in which “the whole farm speaks in iambic pentameter” when someone’s trying to learn lines. One son or another is always accompanying their father around the theaters of the East Coast, attempting to keep him sober enough to perform. On those rare occasions when Junius is home at the family’s farm outside Baltimore, his personality dominates the family. “Dinner with Father is a one-man show,” Fowler writes. His declarations that the theater ought to be no place for his children, for whom he harbors middle-class dreams, are “much less persuasive than the glamour he casts with every word, every gesture.”
As the children grow older, they launch careers and families of their own; many of those sons will become actors themselves, of various levels of success. (One, Edwin, will become a star; famous for his Hamlet, he performed into the 1890s.) Often they only know what is happening in one another’s lives because those lives make the newspapers. “One of the peculiarities of the Booth family,” Fowler writes, “is how often they communicate via article and review.” Over the years the bonds between them stretch and occasionally break; this is, after all, a family of passionate orators, wont to ignite in debate when in the same room. Fowler’s narrator roves among the children, settling for some time on sincere young Edwin, trying to keep his father in line, and then landing on flighty daughter Asia, whose loyalty to family above all comes to haunt her.
Most compelling of all is the character Fowler had to most completely invent: Rosalie, 15 years older than John, about whom almost nothing appears in the written record. Fowler makes her watchful, resentful, a duckling who never gets the chance to turn into a swan. “No girl knows she’s ugly until someone tells her so,” Fowler writes, “and every ugly girl remembers the someone who first told her.” For Rosalie it’s a neighbor, overheard expressing her sympathy for Rosalie’s beautiful mother, to have a child like that. Rosalie is a lost soul, separated from her younger siblings by a yearslong gulf that coincides with the Booth children near her age, who all died young. Bent by scoliosis and consigned to her aging mother’s side, Rosalie sees her chances at love evaporate, her hopes quashed by fortune and tradition.
There’s nothing modern about Rosalie. For the most part, readers instinctively understand the ways her life might have been different had she been born in a different era. That’s one way historical fiction has traditionally dealt with the gulf between the expectations of today and the reality of the past; the author writes to make us feel we are “actually there,” but trusts that our contemporary perspective will color the tale. But Fowler feels this kind of unspoken assumption isn’t enough. Booth may be set in the 19th century, but it’s telling its story from the 21st. Fowler’s narrator takes the 10,000-foot view of her story, offering context, correction, and complication to her characters from her perch in the present. When patriarch Junius Booth praises the late President Andrew Jackson, the narrator pops up to inform us that Booth is eliding “the letter he wrote during his old friend’s presidency, calling him a damned scoundrel and threatening to cut his throat as he slept.” When a free Black neighbor shoots at John and Asia on Halloween night, the Booths protest bitterly—“incapable of understanding,” Fowler’s narrator points out, “what a black man might feel, living alone in a remote cabin, and seeing a mob of people coming silently towards him in the dark.”
The Booths are incapable of understanding, but we are capable, and the typical historical novel might take that as a given—or at least merely suggest that note through action or dialogue. Fowler does not. She seems determined at every turn to overtly address the caution and concern she feels about telling this story, about this family, at this time.
This can get clunky. The novel occasionally seems to abjure entirely the imaginative leaps of fiction to deliver nonfiction-style exposition. An aside on the Maryland state song turns into a disquisition on the song’s anti-Union sentiments and concludes with the fact that attempts to replace the song have failed as recently as 2020. Another section, on President Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 clemency granted to Native American rebels in the Dakota War, feels like an unnecessary case of box-checking, two pages of Wikipedia facts shoehorned into the narrative so that the book can’t be accused of ignoring this aspect of Lincoln’s presidency. If this history affected the Booth family or the arc of their story, we’re never told.
Fowler makes it clear, in that author’s note, just how difficult it has been to separate truth from falsehood in researching a family as mythologized as the Booths. But it isn’t only posterity that rewrites the narrative; we are all doing so throughout our lives, as Fowler’s narrator wryly points out as she explains how Edwin, over his many years, told a lot of different stories about his father’s first wife, whom Junius abandoned in England but who chased the family to the New World. “This is a good reminder,” Fowler writes, “that no one in the world is a reliable source for their own story.”
Often Fowler does take advantage of this to deliver slivers of historical information about her characters that perfectly clarify the kinds of people they are, as when Asia natters on about her brothers, John and Edwin, who are taking her on a trip to Niagara Falls. John, the narrator tells us, is accompanying because he’s fled Philadelphia, where he had to pay off a woman who claims he’s made her pregnant. Edwin has the clap. “Asia knows none of that,” Fowler writes. “She has the most wonderful brothers!”
Booth is at its most affecting, though, when it’s at its most imaginative. The novel’s climax tells not only the familiar story of John Wilkes’ shooting of Lincoln but the unfamiliar—and, it seems clear, often invented by Fowler—stories of how all his family members receive the news. One by one, Fowler’s narrator settles in each of these minds, watching them as they absorb the fact that the drama of their lives has been turned into the tragedy of a nation. We land, finally, upon Rosalie, miserable Rosalie, whom we know has had every reason to bemoan all that has come before. But now she can’t remember any of that. “How happy, how rich her life once was!” Rosalie thinks. “John has murdered them all.”