Review: Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

Review by Amy Stoothoff

A few years ago, I enjoyed reading Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. So when Booth came out, I immediately picked it up.

It explores a complex family of Shakespearean actors in 19th century America. The family supported abolition, animal rights to the point of violence, intellectualism, and weLord Byron and the promise adventure. They run off and end up in rural Bel Air, Maryland. Junius left a pregnant Mary Ann while he went on tour for nine months out of the year. Nearly all of his life he’ll spend on tour. Alcoholism derails Junius’ career at various points in his life. His passion onstage was an asset but proved to be a liability throughout his life. Drunken brawls occur often so his friends and even his son act as almost his guardians.

Left alone for long periods Mary Ann survives thanks to the charity of her neighbors and a slave. Despite their abolitionist leanings, the Booths hire a slave from a neighbor. To appease their conciences they pay both the master and the slave. While at home alone the family loses 3 children to cholera and another to smallpox. This sends Mary Ann into a deep depression. Junius mourns deeply but is able to go on with the show. From then on, she’s only truly present in her surviving 6 kids’ lives intermittently. Rosalie the oldest daughter steps in as caretaker from an early age. She dotes on John Wilkes throughout his life but she sees his flaws too. All of this happens as the country is in the middle of seismic changes. The family as many did split along political lines. 

John Wilkes navigated the 19th century political landscape far differently from his family. Most of the Booth family sympathized with the North. He was deeply influenced by his time at a southern boarding school. On a trip to a classmate’s Thomas Gorsuch family plantation he was struck by the “well run” plantation. In contrast, his family hid slaves on their way to freedom. John Wilkes used his easy access as an actor to spy for the South. When the assasination of Lincoln occurs it’s at a theater. Only a few chapters describe the terrible loss of Lincoln. Afterward it focuses on the family’s shocked reaction to his violent attack. 

Booth is an exploration of a divided time in our past through the lens of a deeply troubled family.