If John Wilkes Booth could have read about himself in Jennifer Chiaverini’s Fates and Traitors, he probably would have believed he was the hero of the story.
Booth is the focus of the page-turning, fact-based novel. But he is hardly a hero.
Known throughout America in the early 1860s as one of the finest actors in the land (second only to his older brother, Edwin), Booth achieved a very different kind of fame on April 14, 1865, when he shot President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
To Booth’s way of thinking, this was not an act of villainy. He was on a self-appointed rescue mission, one that would release the South and the North alike from the clutches of a tyrant.
“He does not seek to govern but rule,” the actor/assassin says of the president in Fates and Traitors. “He wants to crush out slavery by any means — robbery, rapine, slaughter and bought armies. … Lincoln would be another Bonaparte, overturning this blind Republic and crowning himself king!”
Tellingly, one of Booth’s most celebrated performances onstage — and his favorite Shakespearean role of them all — was Brutus from Julius Caesar.
“It must be a thrilling challenge for an actor to take on the villain,” Lucy Lambert Hale, the love of his life, muses.
“Villain? Did I perform so badly that I misled you?” Booth protests. “My dear lady, Brutus is the hero of the piece.”
“Nonsense! He was a murderer.”
“He was a patriot. … He could not allow his beloved country to be ruled by a tyrant.”
It has been said that when the villain looks in the mirror, he doesn’t see a bad guy. He sees a man whose actions and motives are merely misunderstood.
This self-delusion makes John Wilkes Booth a fascinating and tragic individual.
It’s worth noting, though, that Chiaverini, who has written several bestselling Civil War-era novels — Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker (2013), The Spymistress (2013) and Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival (2014) — actually devotes very few pages of the novel to imagining what is in Booth’s head.
Instead, she tells most of his story through the eyes of four women in his life: his mother, Mary Ann (Booth’s dying words were of her); his sister, Asia (to whom he wrote his last manifesto); his would-be fiancee, Lucy (the staunchly Unionist and abolitionist daughter of U.S. Sen. John Parker Hale); and co-conspirator Mary Surratt (the first woman to be executed by the U.S. federal government).
This approach pays off enormously in the closing quarter of the book — which covers the days, weeks and years after Booth is captured and killed — because his story doesn’t end with his final breath.
While the assassination didn’t have the desired effect of motivating the South to continue to fight (Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army just five days earlier), the misguided man was unfortunately quite successful in breaking the hearts and ruining the lives of many who knew and loved him.
In Chiaverini’s hands, the stories of these little-known and forgotten historical figures around him become unforgettably poignant.
This is particularly true in the case of Lucy Hale, who is left with many questions: Did she ever really know the man she thought she loved? And did he genuinely love her in return? Or had he merely used her connections in the world of D.C. politics in an effort to get closer to Lincoln?
It’s also quite amazing to read about the skimpy security our country’s leader had in those days.
Many times throughout the narrative, Booth comes tantalizingly close to the president. In fact, Booth’s original scheme, hatched before Lee’s surrender, was to kidnap Lincoln and then exchange the North’s commander in chief for every last Confederate soldier being held as a prisoner of war.
Imagine the major rewrite to our history books had that caper come to fruition.
Fates and Traitors: A Novel of John Wilkes Booth
- By Jennifer Chiaverini
- Dutton, $27