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Book Review: A President Under Fire

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THE Booth family headstone in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, is, as Karen Joy Fowler describes it in this epic novel about the distinguished 19th-century American theatrical clan, “a marble obelisk… nearly twenty feet high. “.

Like this obelisk, Booth’s name still casts a long shadow on the American landscape: today we remember the family primarily because one of his sons, John Wilkes Booth, was Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. .

Everyone knows the story. It is April 14, 1865. The Civil War is effectively over, and Lincoln is in the theater, watching a play, when a man walks into his dressing room, pulls out a gun, and shoots him in the head.

Lincoln dies the next morning. Booth goes on the run but is tracked down and killed 13 days later. The nation is plunged into despair; this presidential death – the first such assassination in US history – will leave a lasting scar.

What is past is a prologue: the rest of the novel is both, and is not, an accumulation up to this moment. How to deal with John Wilkes’ narrative problem and that inevitable climax is (as Fowler acknowledges in the author’s note) there on almost every page.

She handles it deftly, intertwining Booth’s story with that of her parents and siblings, a story that’s colorful and tragic enough in itself. This isn’t Fowler’s first attempt to capture tense family dynamics, of course: it follows on from 2013’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, his novel about an extraordinary adoption experience.

This book, which provides a narrative shock to the reader halfway through, explores family ties and the nature of love in an “ordinary” American nuclear family.

The Booth family story begins with Junius Brutus Booth, the famous Shakespearean actor, who fled accusations of bigamy in England in 1821 with Mary Ann Holmes, a Drury Lane flower seller (no spoilers here: we’re in the area of ​​history).

Their 10 children are born into near-scarcity on an isolated farm in rural Maryland. Richly talented, terribly unstable and a committed vegetarian, Junius is the source of many comedies, some of which are benign culinary (“Suddenly my father, who once thought it was murder to eat an oyster, decided that they should all eat fish. None of the kids like fish, so there’s nothing to celebrate”).

And some less: when his old friend Andrew Jackson becomes president and they disagree, Junius threatens to slit Jackson’s throat. Later we remember this detail.

It is a century dominated by men. Four of the Booth children die in infancy; surviving sons of Junius, Junius Jr, Edwin and John all follow him on stage. His daughters – the sad and devoted Rosalie, haunted by the sightings of her missing siblings, and the temperamental Asia, who will grow up to be the family chronicler – know they don’t matter.

Rosalie “never wanted to be at the center of a story, not even her own”. John, on the other hand, who is a Confederate sympathizer, is not content to be an observer. He “always had this need to be in the story”. Moreover, he has “Father’s madness without Father’s genius to excuse it”. His sense of destiny is also fueled by a dangerous family myth: when he was a baby, his mother saw a special future for him in the flames of the living room fire.

As a grown man, he shows himself by quoting Macbeth: “Stars, hide your fires; May the light not see my black and deep desires. Did the real John Booth ever say that? He was an actor; he might well have.

It is a century dominated by men. Four of the Booth children die in infancy; surviving sons of Junius, Junius Jr, Edwin and John all follow him on stage. His daughters – the sad and devoted Rosalie, haunted by the sightings of her missing siblings, and the temperamental Asia, who will grow up to be the family chronicler – know they don’t matter.

Joe and Ann Hall belonged to the Booths and their neighbors for most of their lives and saw their own children regularly sold to other households. The fact that the angst of this other side story is largely invisible to the Booths perhaps treats the material more eloquently than any other approach might have.

The novel is haunted not only by the ghosts of Booth’s dead, but also by Hall’s children who died alive from slavery. When the Halls manage to buy out one of their daughters, Ann’s only visible sign of emotion is her refusal to let the child out of her sight.

She’s not a trained actress but she plays her part, pretending it’s all normal, better than any Booth: they “could take acting lessons from her (and probably any other southern slave)”. Ann’s agony and relief at having her daughter returned are all the more powerful for not being told.

As these family histories converge with the larger national narrative of America’s traumatic Civil War – in which the issue of individual states’ control over the slave system was central – we realize they were never distinct. at all (“We can’t escape the story,” Lincoln said).

It’s a shame, then, that after so much bravery, the last part of the book sometimes reads like a brief historical summary, as if Fowler had finally been overwhelmed by the weight of her material – or perhaps the simple and utterly commendable desire not to distort it. But that hardly matters.

In his breadth and imaginative depth, Booth has an alluring authority. Fowler has achieved this supremely difficult thing in a historical novel: convincing us that there are things she may have made up, but which are nonetheless true.

– The Guardian

Elizabeth Lowry’s novel The Chosen is published there by Riverrun. Booth by Karen Joy Fowler is published by Serpent’s Tail (£18.99).