- - Sunday, October 23, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

FATES AND TRAITORS A NOVEL OF JOHN WILKES BOOTH

By Jennifer Chiaverini

Penguin/Random House, $18.05, 385 pages

“Fates and Traitors,” Jennifer Chiaverini’s new historical novel, starts on a high note: “A sound in the darkness outside the barn — a furtive whisper, the careless snap of a dry twig underfoot — woke him from a fitful doze … There … quick footfalls, and, more distantly, the jingle of spurs.” John Wilkes Booth has just shot President Lincoln and is hiding in Richard Garrett’s barn, his broken leg throbbing painfully, in the moments before the barn is set on fire and he is shot through the neck, paralyzing and ultimately killing him.

The assassination and aftermath are well known, but the excitement and surprise of the unknown lie in how Ms. Chiaverini weaves facts and surmised motivations, thoughts and emotions into a story not only of Booth himself, but of his family, Lucy Hale to whom he may — or may not — have been secretly engaged, his friends and co-conspirators. It is a tale well-told and engrossing, and creates a realistic picture of life in Washington.

The novel is divided into chapters describing the lives of the women touched by Booth: his mother Mary Ann, sister Asia, fiancee Lucy Hale, the daughter of the senator from New Hampshire, and Mary Surratt, the first woman hanged by the federal government. The tone of the writing changes after the introductory chapter into a somewhat florid 19th-century style.

The story begins in London where Mary Ann, a pretty 18-year-old girl who sold flowers in Covent Garden market, was courted by the famous Shakespearean actor, Junius Brutus Booth. Although unhappily married and a father, Junius declared his love for Mary Ann and persuaded her to run off with him. They settled ultimately in America, where Mary Ann could pass as Junius’ wife. He purchased the Farm, “a rustic country retreat,” where the family spent the summers. In the winter, they lived in east Baltimore, in a neighborhood “populated by butchers, shopkeepers, cabinetmakers, schoolteachers, and the like, with theatres, markets, and the waterfront only a short walk away.”

The Booths were a remarkable family. Junius Brutus was the most successful Shakespearean actor of his day, and three of his sons — Junius, Jr., Edwin and John Wilkes — successfully followed him onto the footlights. Mary Ann, a respectable, well brought up, innocent girl, was willing to sacrifice her parents, her reputation and country for a love that lasted through the long absences of Junius’ theatrical tours, her disgrace and humiliation when she was tracked down by Junius’ legitimate wife, Junius’ drunkenness and unexpected death.

John Wilkes was Mary Ann’s ninth child, born in 1838. He was “her darling boy … so perfect, so pure, so full of promise … His hair was dark and silky, his eyes deep blue, his skin blushing roses on porcelain.” The children “absorbed Shakespeare at [Junius’] knee, and they recited verses and soliloquies as other children told riddles.”

The Booths were abolitionists, except for John Wilkes, who had spent time in Virginia and came to love the South and the hospitable Southerners. He believed in slavery and the cause of the Confederacy. After Lincoln’s second inauguration, John Wilkes planned to kidnap the president and take him to Richmond, there ransoming him in exchange for the Confederate soldiers held in Union jails. After the initial plan failed, he decided on assassination. His co-conspirators would kill Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward at the same time, thereby destroying the order of succession. (Seward was wounded but recovered; Johnson was not attacked.)

The plotters met in the boarding house of Mary Surratt, a Confederate sympathizer. (The house at 604 H Street, NW still stands in Washington’s Chinatown.) Mary believed “that Northerners ought not to condemn what they did not understand. Slavery had existed since antiquity, and it could not offend God or He would not have established so many rules governing it in the Holy Bible.”

After the assassination, anyone connected with John Wilkes was under suspicion. Lucy was persuaded by her father to declare John Wilkes a mere acquaintance she and her family had met when they were all staying at the National Hotel in Washington City.

Ms. Chiaverini treats her characters, including Mary and her daughter, Anna, with sympathy. Her account of Mary’s imprisonment, lack of adequate representation at her trial, and hanging is vivid and moving.

Booth — so handsome, loved and talented — remains somewhat of a mystery. Was he motivated by some theatrical, grandiose gesture, or did he truly believe he was saving his country from tyranny. He told Lucy that the president “does not seek to govern but rule … He wants to crush out slavery by any means … Lincoln would be another Bonaparte, overrunning this blind Republic and crowning himself king.”

To some, he remained a hero. Upon receiving word that John Wilkes had died, his sister, Asia, mourned: “Her childhood companion, the confidant of her youth, the beautiful man by which she measured all others, was gone. The brightest star in her sky had flared once, blindingly bright, and had gone dark.”

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.


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