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Book Review: Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

Review by Sean Smith (Head of Adult Services)

As a fan of American History, Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth was on my “to read” list for a while (it was released earlier this year). This book is meticulously researched historical fiction, focusing on the lives of the Booth family, including John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. In the author’s note, Fowler writes that she was interested in the experiences of the family of those who commit heinous crimes (for example, in modern times, mass shootings), while trying to toe a line without placing a spotlight on those who commit the crimes. This tension, she notes, is evident on each page of the book. This title has been longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize.

This is definitely an historical fiction novel that reads more like non-fiction than fiction. This is a testament to the amazing amount of research by the author, but those looking for a more narrative style may find it a bit dry and want to look elsewhere. Fowler switches from the point of view of several of the Booth children: Rosalie, Edwin, and Asia.

I believe that Fowler does succeed in capturing a portrait of a turbulent, unsettled America grappling with its original sin and coming apart at the seams. Several scenes, expertly written by Fowler, have stayed with me upon the conclusion of the book (promise, minimal spoilers):

  • While in school in England, one of the Booth children makes an off-hand remark about a slave, which inspires a visceral reaction from the English schoolchildren and teachers. It is jarring for modern readers to view slavery as a “matter of fact” part of life, highlighting how uniquely American the institution of slavery is at that time. Joe Hall, for example, is a free black man who more-or-less runs the Booth family farm; he struggles to save money to purchase the freedom of his wife and children. This familial tragedy runs parallel to the Booth story.
  • Earlier in the book, Asia Booth Clarke (the sister of John Wilkes Booth) dismissed the idea of Civil War out of hand, as she believed that while white slaveholders would fight and die to protect the institution of slavery, abolitionists would not. Inspired by antislavery zeal, the 1859 raid of Harpers Ferry led by abolitionist John Brown, shook her from that belief.
  • John Wilkes Booth at one point gained access to the cell of abolitionist John Brown and had a conversation with him before his execution. Booth also attended the execution of John Brown.

Review by Eileen Smith (Children’s Assistant)

Great historical fiction about the family of John Wilkes Booth. The structure is interesting and it is a great read. Lots of information about a most interesting family presented in a well written book

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