Book Review for “Booth” by Karen Joy Fowler.
Summary: “In 1822, a secret family moves into a secret cabin some thirty miles northeast of Baltimore, to farm, to hide, and to bear ten children over the course of the next 16 years. Junius Booth—breadwinner, celebrated Shakespearean actor and master of the house in all ways—is at once a mesmerizing talent and a man of terrifying instability. One by one the children arrive, as year by year, the country draws closer to the boiling point of secession and civil war. As the children grow and the tenor of the world shifts, the Booths cement their place as one of the country’s leading theatrical families. But behind the curtains of the many stages they have graced, multiple scandals, family triumphs, and disasters begin to take their toll. A startling portrait of a country in the throes of change and a vivid exploration of brother- and sisterhood, Booth is a riveting historical novel focused on the very things that bind, and break, a family.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Fiction; Settings: Historical – Civil War Era, USA – Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Washington DC; Other Categories: Novel, Biographical, Family Saga.
This is going to be yet another difficult review to write, mostly because most of this book totally blew me away (with one tiny reservation). Now, I don’t profess to be someone who knows much about America’s Civil War, but I do know the basics. However, this book filled me in on several pieces of information that I didn’t know about. And yet, this novel isn’t really about the Civil War. Which is to say that despite the draw to write about one of the most dastardly of events in all of American history, Fowler instead decided to look outside that one, solitary event, and investigate the perpetrator’s whole life and family, giving us a backstory that will both surprise and fascinate.
So, essentially, this is an historical, biographical, family saga concentrating on the Booth family, that starts off long before the birth of the son we all know (and hate). If you’re thinking that the environment of this household was what nurtured the pure evil that John Wilkes eventually became, you’ve got another thing coming, because what you’ll get from this novel proves that nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, despite the very unstable home that father Junius built and populated, there were some things about this patriarch that were more than admirable. For example, he was a strict vegetarian because he hated hurting innocent beings for his meals (but he would consume milk products, since that didn’t harm any animals). He was also strongly opposed to slavery, which he saw was equally as inhumane as eating meat, fish, and fowl.
But this book is more than just Junius’s story, and Fowler actually looks at this family through the eyes of three of his children – Rosalie, Asia, and Edwin – all of whom were John Wilkes’ older siblings. In this way, we really get a feel for both the wonders and the troubles that surrounded this family, long before that fateful night in 1865. What surprised me the most was that despite the theatrical successes in this family, their finances seemed to be extremely precarious – going from practically starving to enjoying quite a good level of luxury. Mind you, the darker periods were mostly due to alcoholism, but that some of that was overcome, without total sobriety, must have meant these men were very talented and beloved by their audiences (even when they were drunk on stage, giving mediocre performances as a result).
However, what really struck me here was Fowler’s writing style. Fowler builds an appropriately unstable atmosphere for this family, by keeping her sentences so short, they’re practically telegraphic. Fowler even dropped prepositions in some of her narrative in order to hone in on the essence of what she was trying to highlight (one might even say that some passages almost felt like bullet points – if you excuse the pun). Furthermore, even though the text felt very succinct, Fowler also included just enough poetic turns of phrase to keep it from feeling dull, all which colored the narrative and painted the backdrops of every scene. In addition, as the story progressed, I felt that Fowler’s story telling became increasingly abbreviated, which somehow increased the tension so that I was practically on the edge of my seat for the scene I already knew was coming!
Finally, I have to say that by building this novel in this way, we become so sympathetic with these people, we feel how distraught they are when they find out what John Wilkes did, and can identify with their dilemma of still loving their brother/son, but at the same time, despising what he did. If this quandary was what Fowler was trying to show, she succeeded beyond all expectations, and I almost fell in love with most of them (but… unfortunately, she didn’t make me cry). For all of this, while I reserve the right to adjust this rating later, I think for now I’ll give it 4.75 stars out of five, rounded up to five for all intents and purposes. This is certainly an excellent example of how to write historical, biographical fiction, and I can totally recommend it to lovers of this genre.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (a division of Penguin Random House) will release “Booth” by Karen Joy Fowler in hardcover on March 8, 2022 (paperback and eBook releases due March 17-22). This book is (or will be) available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Kobo (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.