October 2022 Open Book Club – Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

Congratulations to all members of OBG as we celebrate the 15-year-old anniversary of OBG this month. In Oct 2007 Jan and Annette (another FOBL committee member) and I met to start a book group. Trish walked in to join us, and the rest is history.

I enjoyed moderating Booth by Karen Joy Fowler. It was longlisted for the 2022 Booker prize.

In the aftermath of many shootings in modern America, the victims and the victim’s families receive much sympathy. Fowler’s thoughts turned to the perpetrator’s family. The shooter is often a much-loved son or sibling. How does his family react when they process the horrific crime their relative has inflicted? John Wilkes Booth became one of America’s most notorious killers when on the 14th of April 1865, with the Civil War effectively over, he shot Abraham Lincoln in the head as he sat in the theatre. Lincoln died the next day. Booth was hunted down and killed 13 days 0later.

In Booth Fowler imagines the Booth family pre- and post-shooting. She was familiar with parts of their life as she had researched his older brother Edwin for a couple of earlier short stories. In 2013 she published. We are all completely beside ourselves (OBG November 2017) about a chaotic American family. The reader does not learn until halfway through that the identity of the family member causing mayhem is anything but ‘’normal’’. In comparison in Booth, the reader knows that one sibling is not ‘’normal’’. We have its knowledge a long time before the protagonists do.

In 1821 Junius Brutus Booth hurriedly left England with his mistress Mary Anne Homes. They settled in Bel Air a remote rural community in Maryland, 30 miles from Baltimore. Over the next 20 years, the couple produces ten children with only six Junius Jnr, Rosalie, Edwin, Asia, John and Joe, surviving to adulthood. Fowler through Rosalie, Edwin and Asia’s experiences describes the family dynamics over the next 40 years.

Junius was a widely celebrated Shakespearean actor. He was also an unstable alcoholic. His profession meant he spent extended periods, on tour, away from the farm. He left his family to grapple with extreme hardship. When he returned home, he set the household alight with his radical views. He railed against the tradition of slavery, though he used slave labour on the farm. ‘’Dinner with father is a one-man show ‘‘

Junius Junior known as June, Edwin and John followed their father on stage. June branched out setting up his own theatre company with mixed fortunes. 10-year-old Edwin went on tour with his father. He kept his father away from the bars so that he did not go on stage drunk every night, jeopardising the family’s only source of income Edwin emerged as an accomplished Shakespearean actor with a prodigious talent. As the eldest girl, Rosalie stayed at home looking after all the younger children. Her sister Asia was feisty and opinionated. She strongly argued against John’s increasingly vocal confederate sympathies. History owes her a debt as she wrote John Wilkes Booth: sisters memoir published in 1938. It gives firsthand insight into the family dynamics.

And then there is John. Growing up he displayed early signs of delinquency with his cruelty to animals He was removed from boarding school for leading an insurrection. When he was 8, he discovered he was illegitimate. The children were not aware that their parents had not been legally married. His foray onto the stage was not a success. He had ‘‘his father’s madness without father’s genius to excuse it ‘‘. He became increasingly at odds with the rest of his family in his political views. He vehemently opposed the abolitionists and wanted to enlist with the confederates.

As well as the Booth family saga there are two other parallel stories. Joe Hall is a freed slave who works for the Booths while living in a shack on their property. He works hard to pay to free his wife Ann once she has completed her years of bondage. Regardless their children remain the property of the Booth’s neighbours and many years pass before they gain freedom. What does freedom mean? The Halls still work long hours on the farm. They have no opportunities for advancement. They live in fear of being lynched by marauding confederate gangs. They arrange for their children to escape to the North in the hope freedom means more there.

Finally, we follow the progression of Abraham Lincoln’s political career. We see the development of his political thoughts as he progresses to being elected a senator, then president leading his country through civil war. There are snippets of his speeches at the beginning of many chapters. These put the Booth’s family life in context with what was happening in America.

Opening comments surrounded the novel’s length, an initially off-putting 480 pages. However, Fowler’s straightforward prose meant we were soon absorbed in the family’s story.

We enjoyed her vivid descriptions of Edwin’s terrifying crossing of the isthmus of Panama on his way to California as well as his involvement in the horrific violence of the 1863 New York draft riots. The level of interest of the population in the theatre and its roving Shakespearean players had, unreasonably, surprised us. The theatre was the main venue for entertainment. Junius and Edwin’s portrayal of Richard III would have been widely admired and discussed.

One member commented on the postscript where Fowler explained that she did not want John to be the central character. She wanted to give a voice to his loved ones. They too suffered from his actions, but their suffering is lost to history. However, we agreed as readers, we sat up when John’s name was mentioned. Even though we all know what will happen, Fowler creates suspense as we reach the denouement.

Having read the wonderful Lincoln in the Bardo (OBG June 2018) we felt we had a personal connection to Lincoln. But we were ashamed to confess that many of us did not know the name of the man who shot him. Our knowledge of the American Civil War was sketchy. We agreed the great advantage of well-written historical fiction was that it’s much more inviting to read than a dry textbook. Booth had encouraged many of us to undertake further research of the period to explore the line Fowler had drawn between fact and fiction.

We enjoyed Fowler’s uses of the third-party voice, so it is as if we are a fly on the wall watching the family dynamics as they unfold. This voice sometimes looks at the family’s moral choices through 21st-century eyes.

Booth is written in the present tense. We concurred that Fowler prompted us to consider how far America has come. To quote Lincoln “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. How divided is the America of today? How far have black society come? They are free but often still second-class citizens suffering police harassment and worse. We saw with horror the confederate flag flying when the Senate was invaded on January 6.

We referenced a poll published by the Economist and YouGovAmerica in August 2022. It found that 66% of Americans believe political divisions in the country have got worse since 2021. 60% anticipate an increase in political violence in the next few years. 40% say civil war is at least somewhat likely in the next ten years. 21% of very strong republicans think it’s VERY likely there will be civil war in the next decade. Many of these Republic0ans still believe the election was stolen from Trump and will take up arms if they believe happens again. One member opined that it was ever thus that great empires rise and fall. However, given the instability of global politics, now is not the time to fear a depleted America.

We would all recommend Booth. In the words of another great wartime leader Winston Churchill “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

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