My third read of the 2022 Booker Prize longlist was Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth (Putnam 2022). While Fowler is no stranger to the Booker Prize (she was shortlisted in 2014), this is my first novel by her. While reviews are relatively mixed, I found it a fascinating, well researched and executed historical saga about the Booth family. Some of the criticism is that the novel has too much of the family, but that’s the entire point – this isn’t a novel about the man who assassinated President Lincoln, it’s a novel about the Booth family, American theatre, and a snapshot of a period in United States history; I couldn’t put it down.
“Are there ghosts? How could there not be.”
In 1822, a famed Shakespearean actor leases farmland northeast of Baltimore to raise his family. His first born is named after him, Junius Booth, or June. Nine other children follow, with the second to the last being the one history remembers the most. After June comes Rosalie, then the four children who would become childhood ghosts, then Edwin, Asia, John, and Joe. Their father is a talented actor, unpredictable alcoholic, and a bit of a madman. The family is secret because their father is still married to his first wife.
Despite their father’s attempts to keep the children away from acting, it’s in their blood. So is a hunger for alcohol and a touch of madness. From 1822 to 1893, we see the rise and fall and recreating of narratives of the Booth family. Each sibling craves fame, glory, and most importantly, to be remembered. They struggle with demons both real and imagined. They suffer losses, shame, hunger, and failure. Rosalie and Asia, the oft forgotten women of the family, complete opposites of each other, are the bookends struggling to hold the family together.
War draws nearer. Loyalties of the family become divided. But one constant is the call of the stage. As the world begins to burn around them, Junius Booth’s sons continue to take the stage, all still battling the ghost of their now dead father. They are theatre royalty; the Booth name means something, and the Booth children are chasing the same but different legacies.
Booth is a chunk of a novel, but it is far from a slog of a read.
Read this book.
Booker count: 3 of 13