It doesn’t take long before disaster strikes. After all, childhood in the 19th century was never without the shadow of death, and the Booths are not spared: “Sixteen years pass. The family grows, shrinks, grows. In 1838, the children are at nine, counting the number of children about to arrive and the four dead. Eventually it will be ten.”
There are somewhat vulgar descriptions of farm life – chores, carrying babies – punctuated by bursts of brilliant writing that lift this novel slightly above its predictable rhythms. For example, here’s a glimpse of ordinary carnage: “The farmers had run out to protect their fields and stock their larders. They just fired their guns into the air. There was no need to aim. There was no way to miss. The mass of birds rolled into the air and rose like a giant snake as the shots started.
Through the back half, “Booth” offers a quick but tedious summary of life just before and during the Civil War. One section simply reads, “In January 1865, the 13th Amendment is passed, abolishing slavery in the United States forever.” This is followed by a passage that begins: “In February, as Edwin struggles with exhaustion during his historic run, June arranges his schedule to spend a day with John in Washington, D.C. Rosalie, Edwin and June have a tête- à-tête-à-tête about John.”
We also get a report of a Confederate arson plot in New York City: “The paper boys that night learn that the fire at the Lafarge Hotel next to the theater was started by a Confederate officer. The next morning, they read from the paper that it was just one of 19 fires lit that night in a plot to overwhelm the fire department and burn New York City to the ground. As a plot, it was better in theory than execution. All 19 fires were easily extinguished.” These national events merge into the events of the family – the Booth children grow up, marry, betray their husbands, flee from their responsibilities and find their way back to their true home: the stage.
Meanwhile, Johnny, who starts out as the caressing and beloved youngest son of the family, grows into a stout young man, mischievous and violent. At school, he fills in with a group of Southern boys and finds himself joining them in their preservation of the slavery institution. Johnny grew up with a black family on the farm; he has played with their children and seen the pain of children being sold or family members being beaten and raped. “Booth” is in a sense a chronicle of Johnny’s transformation. It is also an indictment of the very idea of decent white people† I’m sympathetic to this idea, but I found it quite a boring premise for a novel.