John Wilkes Booth, the mercurial son of an acclaimed British stage actor and a Covent Garden flower girl, committed one of the most notorious acts in American history—the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
The subject of more than a century of scholarship, speculation, and even obsession, Booth is often portrayed as a shadowy figure, a violent loner whose single murderous act made him the most hated man in America. Lost to history until now is the story of the four women whom he loved and who loved him in return: Mary Ann, the steadfast matriarch of the Booth family; Asia, his loyal sister and confidante; Lucy Lambert Hale, the senator’s daughter who adored Booth yet tragically misunderstood the intensity of his wrath; and Mary Surratt, the Confederate widow entrusted with the secrets of his vengeful plot.
Fates and Traitors brings to life pivotal actors—some willing, others unwitting—who made an indelible mark on the history of our nation. Chiaverini portrays not just a soul in turmoil but a country at the precipice of immense change.
There have been many books written about the events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination over the years, but have there been many novels that focused on the women in the life of the assassin? Jennifer Chiaverini continues her unofficial series about Civil War era characters with an excellently researched look at four very different women who knew John Wilkes Booth and how his actions impacted their lives.
Fates and Traitors is divided into six extremely long chapters, which each start with a Shakespearian quote. There’s a relatively short prologue set at the Garrett farm when Booth dies, and then the book goes back in time to when his parents met in London. The first two chapters read more like biographies than fiction. There’s so much information about the Booth family history that portions are left out, while what’s included isn’t written about in great detail. While I enjoy reading biographies, these chapters felt dull and monotonous. They did, however, make me feel strangely sympathetic towards Booth and his mother while his father was portrayed as a philandering drunkard. They also show how Booth possibly came to be the infamous killer we know. The next two chapters – about Mary Surratt and Lucy Hale – read more like a novel and I preferred those.
The title of the book, Fates and Traitors, comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which is highlighted in a conversation between Booth and his sister. Was Brutus a patriot or a traitor for his part in Julius Caesar’s assassination? Asia is horrified by her brother’s interpretation of the role, as he suggests that one person’s traitor can be another man’s patriot and that George Washington was probably considered to be a traitor by George III. This exchange also hints as to how Booth could have seen his killing of Lincoln a patriotic duty.
Those with interest in the Lincoln assassination will find no new information here. We know the fates of the main players and Chiaverini cites various sources, including some written by those included in the story or by their descendants. The angle here is that it’s a book about the women in Booth’s life, rather than focusing only on the man. Chiaverini has created realistic representations of these historic ladies; human enough that the reader can get to know them and form opinions accordingly. I experienced such a dislike of Mary Surratt early on in her narrative that I was indifferent to her ultimate fate. On the other hand, I felt bad for the Booth family after the assassination: the reputation their father had created was ruined and the equally famous brothers – Edwin and Junius – were briefly imprisoned under suspicion of conspiracy.
Thank you to Dutton for my complimentary electronic advance uncorrected proof of Fates and Traitors, which I downloaded from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
Have you read Fates and Traitors? Do you plan to read it? Let me know your thoughts.
Publisher: Dutton (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
Publication Date: 13 September 2016
Page Count: 400