England abolished slavery in 1833. It took the United States of America another 32 years, and a civil war leaving more than 750,000 bodies in its wake.
John Wilkes Booth was 26 when he shot and fatally wounded Abraham Lincoln in a the theatre, just five days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered, marking the beginning of the end of a war in which white people in North America were fighting for the right to keep slaves.
A Confederate sympathiser, John Booth never fought in the war. He was an actor. His family can be blamed for the latter, but not the former. His father, Junius, who was the pre-eminent stage actor of his time, was opposed not just to slavery, but to violence. He forbade meat to be cooked in his house, or animals to be slaughtered on his 150 acre farm in Maryland, if Karen Joy Fowler, author of the historical fiction, Booth, is to be believed.
How then did his son, who like his two brothers before, followed in his footsteps professionally, come to be a Confederate agent and assassin?
Fowler doesn’t try rationalise his beliefs, much less his actions, and she certainly makes no attempt to justify them. She does, however, provide some clues, of the type only literature can: A point in John’s adolescence. During that crucible of original feeling, a slave belonging to his best friend’s father escapes.
It is disconcerting to be faced with how slavery was part of life just a few generations ago, in the South as well as the North. Junius Snr. freed Joe Hall, a slave who lived on the farm although that didn’t mean Joe’s children, previously bought or raised by other landowners, were free. But John’s friend’s household was more conservative, more stable for the third living son of father who was away touring more often than he was home, and an alcoholic. So when John’s friend’s dad gets shot dead while trying to retrieve his slave, John is outraged.
The way Fowler tells it, you get the impression he may have been overcompensating. A feeling nurtured beyond its original expression is one you have to define yourself by, or admit you’re wrong. In the twisted world in which a man could own another man, he felt it a great injustice that a man could be killed in the process of collecting his own property. So begins his romance with the South, the grooming of white superiority. Indoctrination is ages old, and preys on the disaffected.
But Fowler does not dwell on John, who craved attention and does not deserve it. The book is not about him, but about the family. Rosalie, the eldest, who never married, who was afflicted by a crookedness of the spine, and who not only had to bear the deaths of three beloved younger siblings but also the grief of her mother, receives most of the author’s affection.
There is also more focus on Edwin, the second brother and most talented of the three, who came to define the role of Hamlet as his father had Richard III. Much of Junius Snr is seen from his perspective, his life large, with the accompanying prices that extracts.
It’s a great novel to read.
“All the world’s a stage,” observed Shakespeare. We are all players.
Fowler has a knack for showing the scene and letting us grimace, applaud, or laugh.
Edwin watches his father Junius board a ship from California, unaccompanied. As America’s foremost actor of the time, he’s come to expect having an assistant – up until then one of his sons, mostly Edwin – so as he steps up the gangplank there is some fuss over his baggage:
“Father asks a deckhand to carry his trunks. The man says that he won’t. ‘I’m no flunky,’ he says.
‘Then what are you, sir?’ Father asks.
In an instant, Father is in character, his favorite character – Bertram from the play with the same name. ‘Take my hand, then, sir,’ he shouts, ‘for I’m a pirate.’
This makes the deckhand laugh, clasp Father’s arm, and haul him in.”
Then there is Asia, the tempestuous younger sister and John’s confidante, both of them removed from the older siblings, gravestones marking the years between them.
The overall picture is of a family squinting through the glare of fame at a country enthralled by celebrity, riven by violence, and blindly shackled to the most appalling racism.
Replace emails with letters, instant messages with telegrams, cars with horses, planes with steamboats, television with theatre, social media with gossip andthe Booths could be the Kardashians, except the Booths actually had talent, and endured the limelight as an inconvenience that came with the profession, rather than pushing to the front and deliberately prostituting themselves to the lowest common denominator.
Booth reveals how little America has changed. The January 6th insurrection, the lethal racism, the guns and mass shootings, the polarisation within society. The story, and its facts laid out in Booth shows the road the country had set upon, and has not left. It is a fascinating story of a unique family, and an historical lens with which to understand America’s current situation.
Perhaps Lincoln would have changed that course, had he lived. We’ll never know.