Everyone knows how John Wilkes Booth’s story ends, but that’s what makes this novel so exciting

Karen Joy Fowlerpicture rv

In November 1863, at the express request of the theater owner, the actor John Wilkes Booth appeared for two weeks at the Ford Theater in Washington. President Lincoln also visits the performance and is so pleased with Booth’s acting that he invites him to visit the White House. That invitation is declined, but Lincoln evades it.

A year and a half later, on 14 April 1865, both are again present in the same theatre. Lincoln again as a spectator. Booth as his killer.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War (1861-1865) so closely associated with it are still repeated in American political-social reality. Slavery may have been abolished in December 1865, but the contradictions between North and South, black and white, are still very much present in the country and in many ways form an open wound that will not heal.

In her new novel condition Karen Joy Fowler explores this trauma through a family story. The novel delves into the Booth family, of which John Wilkes was the second youngest descendant. The Booths were a famous, if not legendary, theatrical family in 19th century America. Father Junius Brutus Booth was the most famous Shakespearean actor of his time and would be succeeded as such by his son Edwin. Junius junior and John also celebrated stage triumphs. The family members spoke among themselves in pentagrams, Fowler reports somewhere.

Family portrait

As a result of their great fame, much is known about the Booth family. There is extensive correspondence, theater reviews, biographies and other sources of information. In addition, daughter Asia wrote several books, including about her father and about John. Fowler has gratefully made use of these resources. Yet she does not use it primarily to provide the most accurate reconstruction possible of Lincoln’s assassination and what preceded it. Although that fact is constantly present as a menacing hum in the background, but condition is first and foremost a family portrait. A portrait that is partly based on facts, but where imagination also plays a significant role.

The latter happens mainly through the beautiful role of Rosalie. Little is known about her, and that gives Fowler the freedom to fill things in himself. Rosalie is the eldest daughter of a family of ten children, four of whom die at a young age. She communicates with their spirits. Even as a girl growing up, she reveals herself to be the most caring of the Booth children. She is an important support to her mother, so much so that her father encourages her to turn down a marriage proposal. She follows his wishes. Rosalie already knows that, unlike her sister Asia, she is not beautiful. It remains with the one marriage proposal. When she whispers if she will ever marry again, those around her are startled. Does Rosalie really not know that she will never marry?

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When Asia, on the other hand, theatrically claims not to marry and sighs with misplaced self-pity that being a spinster is not a bad thing at all, the narrator sharpens: “Something only a woman can write, who knows she wants countless courtship. “.

Although throughout the book she assumes the role of the various characters, the narrator – whom we can coincide with Fowler in this case – is present with some regularity. Usually to update the reader on relevant historical events, but sometimes with cutting commentary. Of Edwin’s wife Mary, for example: ‘Following the long tradition of young women and tormented heroes, she wants nothing more than to heal him with her unwavering love. The poor Byron sheep.’

Beyond the emancipation of black Americans, women in 19th-century America still have a long way to go, as Fowler makes painfully clear.

Spectacular material

Apart from the first assassination of an American president, this novel is inspired by spectacular material. It begins with the escape of Junius senior and his lover from England to America, where he lives in such a remote corner that he is away from home nine months of the year to practice his profession. What is he running from? We get an insight into his destructive drinking habits. When he goes on a trip to the west coast, just 13-year-old Edwin is sent with his father to keep him from drinking. “For Edwin, it feels like mom is kicking him out while a storm is raging outside.”

The journey west is an adventure in itself. There is no railway yet, so the trip is by ship to Panama, and there via the Isthmus (the canal is not yet there) to the Pacific coast. If you survive the fever and madness. The flea-infested ship to California then feels “like floating wealth.”

Compared to the vivid portraits of the tragic Rosalie, the spoiled Asia and the good-natured Edwin, the evil genius John plays a modest role in this book, although his ideas are clearly outlined. Partly because of his association with the plantation owners’ sons, he is convinced of white supremacy: ‘Slavery is the best thing that can happen to a black man.’

Precisely because everyone knows what is going to happen in the final pages of the book, the constant and random recitation of John’s vicissitudes and thoughts has an exciting effect. He’s like a monster you don’t see, but you know he’s hiding behind the scenes, patiently waiting for the right moment to strike.

Karen Joy Fowler: Booth. Translated from English by Lucie van Rooijen and Inger Limburg. New Amsterdam; 398 pages; €24.99.

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