Book Review "Fates and Traitors: A Novel of John Wilkes Booth and the Women Who Loved Him" by Jennifer Chiaverini

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Mar 19, 2019
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
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Fates and Traitors: A Novel of John Wilkes Booth and the Women Who Loved Him
by Jennifer Chiaverini

This historical fiction novel, copyright 2016, consists of 382 pages not including the acknowledgements or the bibliography.

This author wrote several other historical fiction novels about the Civil War, including the New York Times Bestseller “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.” I read several of the author’s other books. All of these books focus especially on women’s experiences.

“Fates and Traitors” told the story of John Wilkes Booth and four women in his life: his mother Mary Ann Booth, his sister Asia, his “secret fiancée” Lucy Hale (the daughter of an abolitionist Republican senator from New Hampshire), and boardinghouse owner Mary Surratt.

This novel would appeal to the following:

  • those who enjoy reading about women’s experiences during the Civil War;
  • those fascinated by the theatrical Booth family;
  • those fascinated by the conspiracy and trial surrounding the Lincoln assassination.
Each chapter was told from the point of view (POV) of a different “protagonist.” John Wilkes Booth and Surratt both supposed the Confederacy and opposed the abolition of slavery. Mary Anne and Lucy both supported the Union and supported abolition. Asia seemed to merely support her brother.

I mention the above comment on POV, because in another recent thread on this board, several posters discussed the craft of writing historical fiction. One poster mentioned the challenges of writing about characters who hold views that are not acceptable in modern times. In my opinion, Chiaverini accomplished this quite well. For instance, in the sections told from Mary Surratt’s point of view, the author described Surratt’s resentment over her perceptions regarding the treatment of white southern women.

I learned the following “fun facts:”

  • Actors in the 1800’s were required to provide their own costumes.
  • Mary Surratt was the first woman that the federal government sentenced to execution.
  • The federal government arrested four women in connection with the Lincoln assassination, though they eventually only charged Surratt.
  • Robert Lincoln and Lincoln secretary John Hay both courted Lucy Hale before she secretly got engaged to John Wilkes Booth. Lucy Hale was at the White House studying Spanish with Robert Lincoln and Hay at around the same time that Booth shot Abraham Lincoln. Lucy Hale later married the future Senator William Chandler.
  • Asia Booth Clarke’s husband asked her for a divorce after her brother shot Lincoln.
  • Asia Booth Clarke later wrote a memoir about her father, the actor Junius Brutus Booth.
  • Junius Brutus Booth initially forbade all of his children to follow him into acting. However, three of his sons (Edwin, John, and Junius Jr.) became actors.
  • Junius Brutus Booth left his first wife and started a second family with Mary Ann. John Wilkes Booth was a teenager when Junius’ first wife accused him of adultery and sued him for divorce. John Wilkes and his siblings grew up being taunted about their illegitimacy.
This novel contains no explicit sex. In my opinion, the author researched her protagonists and the described historical events very well.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Fates and Traitors” and I recommend it.
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2nd Lieutenant
Forum Host
May 23, 2018
Thanks for your review! I am familiar with the author's quilting books--not read them but just from working in a library--and wasn't aware of this one. It sounds really interesting, and I'd like to try it. I went on a Booth binge last year, but I made the mistake of reading a really good book about the subject first, and it made me super nitpicky about everything else I read after. :bounce:

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Feb 14, 2012
Central Pennsylvania
The Booth family is awfully interesting. I hadn't known Asia wrote a book about her father. I've always thought it part of the tragedy that the family's name is forever associated with the murder. Can you imagine? Thanks for the head's up, could be a good read. " Killer Angels " is historical fiction too but I've re-read it because it's so gosh darn good.

Were there children of the marriage, maybe in England? I could be mixing that part up with someone else, seem to remember something about a brother?
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Cavalry Charger

Forum Host
Silver Patron
Jan 24, 2017
Excellent review @Forks of the Ohio . You have piqued my interest, and great job in bringing this novel to our attention, including the 'fun facts' you've learned. I also had no idea of some of the drama that underlay John Wilkes Booth's life nor the complexities of it.

I shall bookmark your review for future reference.

Jennifer Chiaverini is also the author of Mrs Grant and Madam Jule (see below), which led me into my fascination with Ulysses S. Grant and his wonderful relationship with his wife Julia .


I think Chiaverini is a great author in this genre, able to capture the differing POVs quite well, and she certainly drew me in with this novel.

Not sure if you've read it, but it gives the perspectives of both Julia's slave, 'Jules', and her mistress on their journey together from childhood through to Jules eventual bid for freedom and its aftermath. She weaves a masterful tale of two women at odds in their personal experiences and their journeys through life. And as much as she must 'imagine' the life of Jules the slave girl - I don't think any writings exist in relation to her except for Julia's - she manages to give life to her character in a way that enables the reader to identify and empathize with her. In fact, it is possible to empathize with both women. And, in my opinion, that is the mark of a great writer.

I was surprised to see she also wrote about quilting and is obviously prolific in her writing, both fiction and non-fiction.

Once again, great job :smile:
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