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Words, Words, Words: ‘Booth’ by Karen Joy Fowler

The Folger’s virtual book club, Words, Words, Words continues on Thursday, February 2 with a discussion of Booth by Karen Joy Fowler. To get ready for the conversation, we’ve compiled some introductory information on this intimate portrayal of one American family whose celebrity turned to infamy.


What is Booth about?

From the Man Booker finalist and bestselling author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves comes an epic and intimate novel about the family behind one of the most infamous figures in American history: John Wilkes Booth.

In 1822, a secret family moves into a secret cabin some thirty miles northeast of Baltimore, to farm, to hide, and to bear ten children over the course of the next sixteen years. Junius Booth—breadwinner, celebrated Shakespearean actor, and master of the house in more ways than one—is at once a mesmerizing talent and a man of terrifying instability. One by one the children arrive, as year by year, the country draws frighteningly closer to the boiling point of secession and civil war.

As the tenor of the world shifts, the Booths emerge from their hidden lives to cement their place as one of the country’s leading theatrical families. But behind the curtains of the many stages they have graced, multiple scandals, family triumphs, and criminal disasters begin to take their toll, and the solemn siblings of John Wilkes Booth are left to reckon with the truth behind the destructively specious promise of an early prophecy.

Booth is a startling portrait of a country in the throes of change and a vivid exploration of the ties that make, and break, a family.

Critical Reception

“In her exquisite new historical novel, “Booth,” acclaimed author Karen Joy Fowler raises the curtain on a cast of ego-driven, grief-haunted siblings and parents jostling for a spotlight even as they carelessly shove into the shadows the more timid among them” —The Washington Post

“In its stretch and imaginative depth, Booth has an utterly seductive authority. Fowler has pulled off that supremely difficult thing in a historical novel: to convince us that there are things she may have made up, but which are nevertheless true.”—The Guardian

“The historical context she offers is of a pre–Civil War America of deep moral divides, political differences tearing close families apart, populism and fanaticism run amok. The similarities to today are riveting and chilling.”—Kirkus Reviews

Named a Best Book of the Year by Real Simple, AARP, USA Today, NPR , and Virginia Living. Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize.

Why did we pick this book?

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection explores not only Shakespeare’s life and works, but also the plays’ historical context, source material, critical and performance histories, and the ways in which they inspire and are adapted by contemporary novelists.

John Wilkes Booth changed the course of American history, but few people realize he belonged to an acting dynasty who were the theatrical celebrities of their day. Booth tells the forgotten story of how Shakespearean performance was central to the identity of an infamous assassin—and deeply present in American society during one of its most turbulent periods.

About the author: Karen Joy Fowler
From her website

Karen Joy Fowler is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels and three short story collections. Her 2004 novel, The Jane Austen Book Club, spent thirteen weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list and was a New York Times Notable Book. Fowler’s previous novel, Sister Noon, was a finalist for the 2001 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. Her debut novel, Sarah Canary, won the Commonwealth medal for best first novel by a Californian, was listed for the Irish Times International Fiction Prize as well as the Bay Area Book Reviewers Prize, and was a New York Times Notable Book. Fowler’s short story collection Black Glass won the World Fantasy Award in 1999, and her collection What I Didn’t See won the World Fantasy Award in 2011. Her most recent novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, won the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction and was short-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Her new novel Booth published in March 2022.

She is the co-founder of the Otherwise Award and the current president of the Clarion Foundation (also known as Clarion San Diego). Fowler and her husband, who have two grown children and seven grandchildren, live in Santa Cruz, California. Fowler also supports a chimp named Caesar who lives at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone.

Meet our Bookshop Partner: Old Town Books

For this session, we are excited to once again partner with Old Town Books, a general interest local bookshop in the heart of historic Old Town Alexandria. They are passionate about building bookish community through virtual book clubs and author events. Learn more at oldtownbooks.com.

Orders can be placed in store or online. Their location on S. Royal Street in Alexandria is open seven days a week from 10AM-7PM.

You can also download the audiobook version of this title from Libro.fm.


Make a plan to join us on Thursday, February 2 to discuss Booth by Karen Joy Fowler. Visit our website to register and stay tuned for additional Folger resources to enrich the conversation. [Click here to register]


We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program:

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