Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Fates and Traitors

Title:  Fates and Traitors:  A Novel of John Wilkes Booth
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2016. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0525954309 / 978-0525954309

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "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."

Favorite Quote:  "Let history decide what to make of the misguided, vengeful man who had killed a great and noble president. That was not the man she had known and loved. She had already said all she ever intended to say about the assassin John Wilkes Booth."

From Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene III:

There is but one mind in all these men, and it is bent against Caesar.
If thou beest not immortal, look about you.
Security gives way to conspiracy.
The mighty gods defend thee!
Thy lover,
Here will I stand till Caesar pass along,
And as a suitor will I give him this.
My heart laments that virtue cannot live
Out of the teeth of emulation.
If thou read this, O Caesar, thou mayst live.
If not, the Fates with traitors do contrive.

These lines are an appropriate epithet for the story of John Wilkes Booth, both for his actions and for his career as a Shakespearean actor. Abraham Lincoln is, of course, the Caesar of this story, and John Wilkes Booth, the traitor who kills him.

This book tells the fictionalized story of John Wilkes Booth through the stories of the women who loved him. Mary Ann Holmes, his mother. Asia Booth Clark, his sister. Lucy, the young woman who falls in love with him. Mary Surratt, the woman who believes in his cause and becomes part of his plot to assassinate President Lincoln.

This is not a story of suspense, for history tells us both of his actions and of the consequences of those actions for him. The book begins at the end with John's own view that he dies not as a convict surrounded by law but as a hero serving his country.

Beyond that glimpse, it is only through the perspective of these four women that there emerges a portrait of the man - son, brother, lover, and conspirator. Mary Holmes speaks of the challenges of her life and of her vision that predicts a future when her son is so very young. Asia's perspective is of her childhood playmate and confidante and of the rivalry between John and his brothers. Lucy's is the story of the innocence of young love despite the social inappropriateness of the match and the distancing of a political family from any hint of scandal. Mary Surratt's story is the one only of the four which agrees with the social and political views that lead John Wilkes Booth to his crime; her is also the one that has by far the more dramatic conclusion.

Like Jennifer Chiaverini's book Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, this book tells a story not from the perspective of the main players in the history but rather through the eyes of those encompassing the periphery. I would assume that these characters are easier to fictionalize, thereby enabling the story to be a more personal one. Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker errs more on the side of history, but this book is definitely more about the story and the relationships. The book feels a bit long and verbose at times, but it is an engaging one. Ultimately, this book is a story of these four women who love a man despite his faults and of their memories not of a traitor but of a son, a brother, and a lover.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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