Karen Joy Fowler explores a famous American family in her latest novel
“Booth” is not primarily a story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, but of his family as a whole — and it’s out Tuesday, the same day its author, Santa Cruz’s Karen Joy Fowler, takes part in an in-person discussion on the UCSC campus.
To the degree that “celebrity,” as we know it, existed in 19th-century America, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln was a seismic event, the enormity of which contemporary Americans can barely imagine.
It was one of the most heinous and consequential crimes in American history, and it was committed by an actor — not just any actor, but the scion of a celebrated family of the theater. Lincoln’s assassin was John Wilkes Booth, who was the younger brother of Edwin Booth, often considered the greatest actor of his era, and the son of Junius Booth, a prominent actor of a previous generation.
There is no easy analogy that translates to today’s celebrity culture. It would be as if Osama bin Laden were the brother of Tom Hanks and they were both the sons of Jimmy Stewart. Sorta. You get the picture.
The tragedy and the magnitude of the Booth family’s story ignited the imagination of Santa Cruz’s Karen Joy Fowler. As a novelist, she wanted to recount how the artistic and cultural legacy of the Booth family in America was negated by a single act from its most notorious member, and to explore the unique pain of experiencing the destruction of a noble family name.
The result of that fascination is finally out in the world. Fowler’s latest novel, simply titled “Booth,” is to be released Tuesday. That’s the same day that Fowler will appear, live and in person, at an event sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz and the Humanities Institute at UC Santa Cruz, at the Cowell Ranch Hay Barn on the UCSC campus. Fowler will be in conversation with fellow Santa Cruz novelist Elizabeth McKenzie.
Fowler is one of the most prominent names in Santa Cruz’s literary community. That renown comes mostly from her luminous and heartbreaking 2013 novel “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” which won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the British Man Booker Prize, among the first American authors so honored. She also wrote the 2004 bestseller “The Jane Austen Book Club,” which was made into a film in 2007.
“Booth” is Fowler’s first novel since “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” and it represents several years of historical research and artistic commitment to the story of the Booth family. One of her biggest marketing challenges, she said, was to shape the narrative around her new book. She wants people to know that this is not primarily a story of Lincoln’s assassin, but of his family as a whole.
“It’s kind of like a Zen koan,” Fowler said from her home on the Westside of Santa Cruz. “Is it about him? Is it not about him? It’s really about the space around him.”
Fowler began her deep dive into the Booths with a couple of short stories, one a time-travel tale about the Lincoln assassination, another about Edwin Booth’s first return to the stage after his brother had killed Lincoln (and had been killed in a manhunt). At the same time, she was meditating on the peculiar relationship Americans have with guns, and the immensely painful and disorienting experience of having a murderer in the family.
The novel’s story begins before the birth of John Wilkes Booth, who was the ninth of 10 children to Junius and Mary Ann Booth, and is centered largely around the Booth family estate outside Baltimore. Fowler’s book is told from three points of view — Edwin, the most famous of the Booths before Lincoln’s assassination; Rosalie, the second child and oldest daughter; and Asia, the youngest daughter. The saga carries forth through the Civil War and the Lincoln assassination and beyond.
Junius Booth, the family patriarch, was born an Englishman and became one of the most celebrated Shakespearean actors of his day. He emigrated to the United States in the early 1820s and quickly became the most prominent actor in America. A generation later, Edwin Booth became even more famous than his father. John Wilkes Booth also became well-known as an actor. (A third son, Junius Jr., also pursued acting, but didn’t attain the success of his father and brothers.)
Though not quite as celebrated as Edwin, John Wilkes Booth was a well-known actor in his own right, and make have eclipsed Edwin had he lived longer (Lincoln’s assassin was only 26 when he died). Still, John was something like the Brad Pitt of his day. Fowler referred to him as the Booth family’s “golden child.”
“He was considered the handsomest man in America,” said Fowler. “He was very popular. He made friends easily. He was quite successful.”
A condition having to do with his speaking voice began to affect John’s performances late in his career. But, said Fowler, “he doesn’t seem like the sort of person who would become an assassin. His life was full of wonderful things. Certainly, there was no lack of female attention. Both he and Edwin were like Lord Byron, early heartthrobs. Sometimes the stage manager had to come to the stage before (a performance) to remind the ladies in the audience to behave like ladies.”
The critical factor in the story of John Wilkes Booth was the divisive politics of the day. It’s a scenario that many contemporary Americans might relate to: the family’s “golden child” adopts a rigid, even fanatical set of political beliefs that widely contradict his family’s long-established principles.
“He was certainly an outlier in terms of politics,” said Fowler. “The rest of the (Booth) family supported the Union very strongly. They were opposed to slavery, some more strongly than others.”
The Booth patriarch was known, said Fowler, to have “a real moral center involving kindness. Although he was not always a kind man himself, he was a vegetarian. He had a farm and no animal was allowed to be hurt or abused in any way.”
John Wilkes Booth, by contrast, was an ardent supporter of the Confederacy and of slavery. He was part of the anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” party in the 1850s, and famously characterized Lincoln as a “tyrant.”
On a lark, Fowler reached out to a biographer of John Wilkes Booth to find out more on a single point of fact that she couldn’t find elsewhere. That writer, in turn, sent her several boxes of original source material, the results of 30 years of researching the Booth family.
The saga of the Booths is full of ironies — Junius Booth’s middle name was Brutus, famous assassin of Caesar; Edwin Booth once rescued Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert from falling in a train station, possibly saving the younger Lincoln’s life.
Ultimately, Fowler wanted to redeem the Booth family from the ugly legacy of its most infamous member. She oriented her book from points of view other than John’s. Both Edwin and the youngest daughter, Asia, who was a writer who authored several books, were available to her as historical characters. Daughter Rosalie was much more of a mystery, and it is with Rosalie that Fowler exercised most her novelist’s prerogative. Still, the aim was to give dimension to a family whose good name has been distorted by history.
“I wanted this book to be about people who did not kill presidents,” she said, “instead of the one person who did.”
Karen Joy Fowler, author of “Booth,” will be in conversation with Elizabeth McKenzie, live and in person, Tuesday at the Cowell Ranch Hay Barn on the UC Santa Cruz campus. Tickets are $7 per person (without a copy of the book), and $32 per person (including a copy of the book). Masks and proof of vaccination are required.