Reviewed by Ed Lengel
The concept of generational trauma has only recently—over the past decade or two—come to occupy the attention of psychologists and historians. It originated, for the most part, in studies of the families of Holocaust survivors, and sometimes in the memoirs and reflections of family members. Although the Bible warned of the sins of the fathers being visited on the lives of generations to come, we are only just coming to realize that traumatic episodes and events can scar children, grandchildren–and beyond–in a myriad of ways. The implications for society in the aftermath of traumatic events, including wars and disease, are chilling to contemplate.
Those considering future familial trauma have understandably focused on comparatively recent times; distant times, however, can offer important lessons for today. Historians are just beginning, for example, to study the violent and tumultuous times from the founding of the United States in the Revolutionary War up to the cataclysm of the Civil War, looking not just at how wars but the institution of slavery helped to embed violence in everyday life and thought. Back in 2000, author Michael J. Bellesiles argued in his book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, that popular enthusiasm for firearms emerged only slowly in the United States. His arguments—based as it turned out on highly suspect research—were quickly debunked, however, and we now know that firearms have always been important elements of American culture, for better or for worse.
It’s in recognition of these realities about America’s past and present, and the potentially toxic admixture of trauma and the means to inflict mass violence, that Karen J. Fowler wrote Booth. Opening in 1822, the novel unfolds the complexities of an American family that managed to be simultaneously unique and typical of the times. Junius Booth, the father, is a talented but alcoholic English Shakespearean actor who sires an illicit family of ten children with his mistress Mary Anne Holmes in Maryland. Talented and mercurial, Junius passes on his abilities and vices to his children. As was typical of the times, many of them die of childhood diseases, leaving the survivors deeply affected, if unable really to recognize the origins of their mental wounds. Junius’s alcoholism, which some of his children adopt, and his morbidly religious penchant for masochistic guilt and self-inflicted penance over the loss of his children, scars everyone including his wife, who becomes suicidal.
The family’s dark psychic journey is told from the perspectives of the three surviving older children, Rosalie, Edwin, and Asia. Rosalie’s physical disability—she is a hunchback—dooms her to a life of servitude within the family, a grim fate common to many “unmarriageable” young women of the time. Edwin, also an actor and a successful one, and the outgoing Asia, appear to break free of their family’s darkness, but carry deep internal flaws. And then there is young John, born in 1838, who outwardly exhibits the best, and inwardly soaks up and embodies the worst elements of his family, and the violent and deeply divided society in which he lives. Although he is not a primary character in the narrative, we observe his malevolent presence emerging on the margins: a Grendel-type figure, fated to gather up his father’s and his fathers’ sins, and visit them in a terrible vengeance on the sacrificial victim–President Abraham Lincoln– whom he murders in 1865.
As the narrative arc suggests, Booth is a dark and brooding novel. Fowler has spoken about how her concerns about gun violence motivated her writing. With the recent massacres in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, these concerns have never been more relevant; and in this respect Booth presents valuable food for thought. As an insightful, if fictionalized, study of a toxic family dynamic in a toxic and weaponized culture, the novel succeeds in building awareness, albeit without offering solutions. As literature, however, Booth lacks the elements of greatness. Even a heavy topic can benefit from a modicum of the wit and lightness of touch that characterizes Fowler’s other novels. At nearly 500 pages, it is a long book; and the heavy-handed storytelling offers few moments of relief. Still, it stands out as a significant cultural signpost at a deeply troubling time in our history.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.