The Man Booker Prize-nominated author looks at the lives of a famous assassin’s relatives before and after his crime in ‘Booth.’
In her new historical novel, former Palo Alto resident Karen Joy Fowler chronicles the story of a family made notorious with one heinous act that reshaped the course of U.S. history.
In “Booth,” her follow-up to the bestselling “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” Fowler explores the connections between the six surviving children of Junius Booth, once considered the nation’s foremost Shakespearean actor. Among the children was John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.
Fowler was born in Bloomington, Indiana, but moved to Palo Alto at age 11. After graduating from Palo Alto High School, she attended the University of California, Berkeley, and graduate school at the University of California, Davis. Fowler now resides in Santa Cruz.
In 2014, Fowler was among five finalists for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, the first American woman to be so nominated.
“It was the first year that Americans could be considered for the award,” Fowler said in a telephone interview, “so there was that enormous bit of luck right away.”
The novel was a bestseller in the U.S., but sold extremely well in the U.K. and other English-speaking countries. Being a Booker Award finalist “made that book visible in a way that it had not been before,” Fowler explained.
Anger over gun violence inspires a look back at history
According to Fowler, “Booth” was born out of long-standing frustration with the level of gun violence in America, and wondering about the impact gun violence has on shooters’ families. A short story about time-traveling tourists visiting Ford’s Theatre led her to read more about the Booths.
“I think that John Wilkes Booth is arguably the most famous man with a gun in American history,” said Fowler. “I knew he had a very large family, so I started wondering how they felt about the assassination and what their lives were like before and after the killing.”
What factors turned Booth into a killer? What does it take to love a murderer?
“I’m not the first writer to think about these things,” Fowler said, “but because I had already been reading about the family, it was a fairly easy step to go from those general questions about contemporary America into the Booth family.”
Fowler said the more she read about their lives before the assassination the more she was fascinated by them.
In her novel, Fowler focuses on June, the oldest Booth son and the first of his generation to enter the family business of theater; Edwin, who would be sent on tours as a teenager to look after his wayward father; Rosalie, who would wind up as the family caretaker; Asia, who worked to keep their literary legacy alive; and enigmatic and unambitious Joe.
Taking cues from his grandfather, father and older brother, young Johnny wanted to match their fame as an actor. When he couldn’t equal them, he found solace in racist rhetoric.
Across the decades, the Booths would enjoy brief bouts of prosperity until one of the men would drink up any profits and plunge the family back into poverty. Few were able to escape an addiction to alcohol.
How to write accurate historical fiction
Fowler strove to be as accurate as possible in presenting the historical aspects of the story. Pre-pandemic, she traveled to Maryland and visited a small museum and the farmhouse where the Booths once lived.
Edwin and Asia left behind a wealth of primary and secondary sources, as well as three books and a collection of letters. Rosalie’s inner life is much more of a mystery.
“On the one hand you could say that she was the hardest to write because I had to make her up,” Fowler said. “But on the other, you could say she was the easiest to write because I got to make her up.”
Fowler was able to include chapters about the Booths’ Black neighbors, the Halls, based on a real family. Under Maryland law at the time, a child born to an enslaved woman was enslaved and a child born to a free woman was born free. Ann Hall, who had been enslaved but got her freedom some time close to the Civil War, had both free children and children who were enslaved on neighboring plantations.
One plot point Fowler added that is not based on a specific historical incident is about a Black childhood playmate of the Booths being sold into enslavement.
“I know those things happened,” Fowler explained. In the Booths’ community, “there was a lot of interaction with the children of the enslaved families when everybody was little, so they must have seen childhood friends sold away. How you would make sense of that as a 5- or 6-year old is difficult to imagine.”
A different era, but the same politics?
Fowler acknowledged that she found herself unable to work on the book for at least a year after the election of Donald Trump, which “brought me to a complete halt.”
She was able to resume work on the novel after discerning its connection to today’s political predicament.
“It had become more clear to me that this was all the same story, that things that were set in motion from the very beginning of the country’s founding and that came so vividly and horrifically to the surface during the Civil War all of those same political vectors were ongoing and, once again, extremely visible.”
“Booth” was published on March 8. Fowler will appear at the Bay Area Book Festival, May 7-8 For more information, visit, baybookfest.org.