A novelist evokes a real family of actors and a famous assassin

It doesn’t take long before tragedy strikes. Childhood in the 19th century was never without the shadow of death, after all, and the Booths were not spared: “Sixteen years pass. The family grows, shrinks, grows. In 1838, the children are nine in number, counting the one who is about to arrive and the four who are dead. Eventually there will be 10.

There are somewhat folkloric descriptions of farm life – chores, carrying babies – punctuated with bursts of brilliant writing that briefly elevate this novel above its predictable rhythms. Here, for example, is a glimpse of ordinary carnage: “Farmers had run outside to protect their fields and fill their pantries. They just fired their guns in the air. There was no need to aim. There was no way to miss. The mass of birds coiled in the air and rose like a giant snake as the firing began.

Through its back half, “Booth” offers a quick but tedious summary of life just before and throughout the Civil War. One section simply reads: “In January 1865, the 13th Amendment passed, forever abolishing slavery in the United States. This is followed by a passage that begins, “In February, as Edwin struggles with exhaustion in the midst of his historic run, June organizes her schedule to spend a day with John in Washington, D.C. Rosalie, Edwin and June had a one-on-one over John.

We also get mentions of a Confederate arson plot in New York: “From the newsboys that night they learn that the fire at the Lafarge hotel next to the theater was started by a Confederate agent . In the next morning’s paper, they learn that it was just one of 19 fires started that night in a plot to overwhelm firefighters and burn New York City to ashes. As a plot, it was better in theory than in execution. All 19 fires were easily extinguished. These national events are integrated with family events – the Booth children grow up, marry, betray their spouses, run away from their responsibilities and find their way back to their true home: the stage.

Meanwhile, Johnny, who started out as the pampered and beloved youngest son of the family, grows into a burly, mischievous and violent young man. At school, he meets a group of Southern boys and finds himself aligning himself with their preservation of the institution of slavery. Johnny grew up with a black family on the farm; he has played with their children and seen the pain when children are sold or family members are beaten and raped. “Booth” is, in a way, a chronicle of Johnny’s transformation. It is also an indictment of the very idea of decent whites. I’m sympathetic to the idea, but found it to be a rather boring premise for a novel.