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Booth
Cover of Booth
Booth
Best Book of the Year
Real Simple • AARP • USA Today
Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize
From the Man Booker finalist and bestselling author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves comes an epic and intimate novel about the family behind one of the most infamous figures in American history: John Wilkes Booth.

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 sixteen years. Junius Booth—breadwinner, celebrated Shakespearean actor, and master of the house in more ways than one—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 frighteningly closer to the boiling point of secession and civil war.
As the tenor of the world shifts, the Booths emerge from their hidden lives to 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 criminal disasters begin to take their toll, and the solemn siblings of John Wilkes Booth are left to reckon with the truth behind the destructively specious promise of an early prophecy.
Booth is a startling portrait of a country in the throes of change and a vivid exploration of the ties that make, and break, a family.
Best Book of the Year
Real Simple • AARP • USA Today
Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize
From the Man Booker finalist and bestselling author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves comes an epic and intimate novel about the family behind one of the most infamous figures in American history: John Wilkes Booth.

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 sixteen years. Junius Booth—breadwinner, celebrated Shakespearean actor, and master of the house in more ways than one—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 frighteningly closer to the boiling point of secession and civil war.
As the tenor of the world shifts, the Booths emerge from their hidden lives to 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 criminal disasters begin to take their toll, and the solemn siblings of John Wilkes Booth are left to reckon with the truth behind the destructively specious promise of an early prophecy.
Booth is a startling portrait of a country in the throes of change and a vivid exploration of the ties that make, and break, a family.
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  • From the cover 1822

    The people who live there call it the farm, though it's half trees, woodland merging into dense forest. A two-story, two-room log cabin has been brought from a nearby acreage on rollers greased with pig lard. The walls are whitewashed, the shutters painted red. A kitchen is added on one side, a bedroom and loft on the other. The additions stand off the main room like wings. There is nothing special about this cabin with its low ceilings, meager windows, and canted staircase, and moving it was a costly business, every local ox and man hired for the job. This all left the neighbors with the impression that the new owner was a bit crazy, a thought they never had cause to revise.

    The relocation puts the cabin beside Beech Spring, where the water is so clean and clear as to be invisible. But, and the neighbors suspect that this is the real purpose, it's also a secret cabin now, screened from the wind and the road by a dense stand of walnut, oak, tulip, and beech. Still, since everyone in the neighborhood helped move it, everyone in the neighborhood knows it's there.

    The nearest neighbors are the Woolseys on one side and the Rogerses on the other. Bel Air, the county seat, is three miles away; the big city of Baltimore some thirty miles of rough coach road to the south and west.

    Improvements are made. Orchards of peach, apple, and pear are planted; fields of corn, cane sorghum, barley, and oats; a kitchen garden of radishes, beets, and onions. A cherry tree sprig is set near the front door and carefully tended. A granary, stables, barn, and milking shed are built. Three large, black Newfoundland dogs arrive to patrol the grounds. They are chained during the day and loosed at night. The neighbors describe these dogs as savage.

    Zigzag fences are erected or repaired. The mail is delivered on horseback once a week, thrown over the gate by a postboy, who whistles through two fingers as he passes, driving the dogs to a frenzy of howling and rattling chains.

    A secret family moves into the secret cabin.

    ***

    Sixteen years pass. The family grows, shrinks, grows. By 1838, the children number at nine, counting the one about to arrive and the four who are dead. Eventually there will be ten.

    These children have:

    A famous father, a Shakespearean actor, on tour more often than at home.

    A paternal grandfather, skinny as a stork, with white hair worn in a single braid, his clothing also fifty years out of fashion, breech trousers and buckle shoes. He's come from London to help out during their father's long absences. He was once a lawyer, treasonably sympathetic to the American revolutionaries, enthusiastic for all things American. Visitors to his London house were made to bow before a portrait of George Washington. Now that he lives here, he hates it. He likens the farm to Robinson Crusoe's island, himself a marooned castaway on its desolate shore. He's rarely sober, which makes him less helpful than might have been hoped.

    An indulgent mother. A dark-haired beauty with retiring manners, she'd once sold flowers from her family nursery on Drury Lane. She'd first seen their father onstage as King Lear and was astonished, when meeting him, to find that he was young and handsome. He'd had to perform the Howl, howl, howl speech right there in the London street before she'd believe he was the same man. "When will you spend a day with me?" he'd asked within minutes of learning her name. "Tomorrow?" and she'd surprised herself by saying yes.

    During their brief courtship, he'd sent her ninety-three love letters, pressing his suit with his ambition, his ardor, the poems of Lord Byron, and the promise...
Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    October 1, 2021

    Author of the Man Booker short-listed, Pen/Faulkner Award-winning We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Fowler here reimagines the life and times of one of U.S. history's most wrenchingly awful figures: John Wilkes Booth. She starts in 1822 with a remote cabin 30 miles northeast of Baltimore, where gifted but emotionally unbalanced Shakespearean actor Junius Booth presides over a family that finally amounts to ten children, including John. The Booths take center stage as the country's top theatrical family, but their secrets and scandals mount as the country burns its way toward the Civil War.

    Copyright 2021 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    January 1, 2022
    Ostensibly about the family of Shakespearean actors best known for their connection to Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, Fowler's novel explores tensions surrounding race, politics, and culture in 19th-century America. Given his upbringing in a vegetarian, strongly anti-slavery, highly literate, freethinking household that even today would be labeled bohemian, how did John became a pro-slavery, pro-secessionist fanatic capable of terrorist murder? And how did his actions affect his surviving family? Alcoholic, eccentrically idealistic Junius Booth is a major star on the British stage when he and his "wife," Mary, run away to rural Maryland while he is still married to another woman. Of their 10 offspring, six survive past early childhood. Bright oldest daughter Rosalie dotes on charming Johnny but is keenly perceptive about his weaknesses. (In a heartbreaking depiction of Victorian women's limited options, Rosalie's own sparkle fades into genteel alcoholism after she's forced to forego education and marriage and become the family caregiver.) Brother Edwin is quiet, responsible, maybe even dull compared to charismatic John, but despite sharing the family addiction to alcohol, Edwin has the discipline, intelligence, and talent that John lacks to succeed as an actor. To his own--and John's resentful--surprise, Edwin becomes America's foremost actor, maintaining his prestige despite his brother's infamy. Staunchly abolitionist and pro-union, Edwin, who once saved Robert Lincoln's life, and Rosalie are increasingly aghast at John's increasingly crazed behavior and racist ravings. More conflicted is sister Asia, who shares John's charm as well as his prickly disposition; after the assassination, she finds herself briefly under suspicion. As the Booths' story unfolds, Fowler inserts major national events into the narrative, like the Dred Scott case and John Brown's uprising, along with key moments in Lincoln's life showing his humanity as well as his public nobility. The historical context she offers is of a pre-Civil War America of deep moral divides, political differences tearing close families apart, populism and fanaticism run amok. The similarities to today are riveting and chilling.

    COPYRIGHT(2022) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    January 1, 2022
    John Wilkes Booth needs no introduction, but this isn't really his story. Instead, it is his family, most especially his siblings, who takes center stage. There is "poor" Rosalie, steady and ignored; Junius, a lesser talent than the father for whom he was named; Edwin, introspective and damaged yet brilliant when performing; Asia, beautiful and self-absorbed. All are shaped by the downstream effect of an alcoholic, mercurial, often-absent father and a mother overburdened to the point of collapse. Scandal, loss, and straightened finances plague the family, but worse is yet to come. Interspersed with the lives of the Booths are cherry-picked Lincoln quotations along with a didactic political history meant to relate events to current politics. All builds towards "Johnny's" terrible act and its consequences for his siblings, the unjust suffering of guilt by association. In her first historical novel in a decade, the best-selling Fowler (Black Glass, 2015) presents an omniscient, bird's-eye view of these lives, along with a nod to what could be apocryphal. The result is an engrossing portrayal of a nineteenth-century family living through the U.S.' most turbulent era.

    COPYRIGHT(2022) Booklist, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from January 24, 2022
    The Booth in the title of Booker-shortlisted Fowler’s razor-sharp latest (after We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves) is John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. The author approaches “Johnny” obliquely, through his family circle in Maryland. Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, is a Shakespearean actor whose masterly Richard III and “towering genius” are offset by episodes of “mad freaks.” (He’s also a drunken failure of a father.) Cycles of depression triggered by Junius’s endless indiscretions and prolonged absences define Booth’s mother. Three siblings in this theatrical family are central: eldest sister Rosalie is “painfully shy” and has scoliosis; brother Edwin, like Junius a “star” actor, is prone to drink; and beautiful sister Asia is “strong and stormy,” “ice and iron.” Others, such as the Halls—a Black family, some of whom are free and others enslaved—also play parts. All illuminate the depressingly bizarre rearing of Johnny and the disgruntled, attention-seeking actor he becomes. As Congress passes the 13th amendment to abolish slavery and General Lee surrenders, Booth’s acting career falters and his Southern sympathies rise, building toward the fateful night that will forever define him and his family. Fowler sets the stage in remarkable prose, and in her account of the Booth family’s move from rural Maryland to Baltimore in 1846 (“Instead of frogs, choruses of drunks sing on the street after dark. Instead of birdcalls, factory whistles”), she subtly conveys the depth of her characters, noting that Johnny, at seven, takes on the “city name” Wilkes. Throughout, the nuanced plot is both historically rigorous and richly imagined. This is a winner.

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Karen Joy Fowler
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