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Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
Historical fiction

Booth

by Karen Joy Fowler

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Quick take

America’s most famous assassin came from a talented family of actors and troubadours. This is their cautionary tale.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_MultipleNarrators

    Multiple viewpoints

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Literary

    Literary

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Real-life-characters

    Real-life characters

Synopsis

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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Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of Booth.
Booth

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.

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Why I love it

As an only child, I have always been fascinated by books about complicated sibling dynamics. How lucky I was, then, to come across Booth, a novel filled with all the jealousy, longing, and uncompromising love I crave in my fictional clans.

Booth captures a nation and family in flux. While the external world reckons with issues of race and a floundering new democracy, John Wilkes Booth—yes, that John Wilkes Booth—and his siblings slowly become attuned to the destructive forces within their own four walls. In-laws fight; the family pot dwindles; illness breaks out; and the imposing patriarch Junius’s increasingly bizarre behavior overshadows the quiet yearnings of his bright but more reserved children.

Karen Joy Fowler has taken larger-than-life historical characters and rendered them utterly human. From the moment I watched Junius walk with stones in his shoes as self-penance for a child’s passing, I was drawn into this 19th century, high-stakes world of life and death. At the same time, Fowler recognizes the quiet moments that form these children’s budding minds, their internal struggles to belong at a time when societal expectations were deemed more important than their own creative ambitions. Booth perfectly captures the balance between these emotional peaks and valleys and is the perfect read for anyone seeking a beautifully written story of family, ambition, grief, and resilience.

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Member ratings (1,727)

  • Ashley G.

    Dover, AR

    As a historian, I am always skeptical when I see history fictionalized, but this was outstanding. Karen Joy Fowler brought these figures to life in a way that was intriguing and substantial. Loved it!

  • Rebecca D.

    Sierra Vista, AZ

    Interesting and informative. Intriguing writing style that kept me turning the pages even though I knew what was ultimately going to happen. Interesting twist on a notorious historical figure & family

  • Kenneth G.

    Atlanta, GA

    Quite the dramatic family they were. Observing the infamous JWB through the lives of his siblings and parents was so interesting. Fact, fiction, or in between, lots of complex character development.

  • Audrey M.

    Danbury, CT

    This book read like a history book. The author wrote so well that I felt really connected to the Booth family and learned some interesting tidbits. The authors note at the end really made the book!

  • Debra L.

    Apex, NC

    This is Historical Fiction at its best! I've read other books about John Wilkes Booth. This one, BOOTH, by Karen Joy Fowler, is by far the most thoughtful; as told through the eyes of his siblings.

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