The average person today thinks of John Wilkes Booth, the actor who shot President Lincoln in 1865, only as an assassin. But he was also a handsome actor with adoring fans, as well as a family man. And the women who helped him did so in a time when women’s lives were constrained in many ways. In her impeccably researched book, Fates and Traitors (Dutton, Sept.), Jennifer Chiaverini has created a window into that world through the prism of four women, each close to John Wilkes Booth in her own way: his mother, his sister, his sweetheart, and a friend’s mother. Says Chiaverini in a recent interview, “When we think of him, we think of a lone gunman. He had not only fans who adored him, but a family, a mother who loved him. How would it be if you were a mother, you had all these children, you were a widow, and all of a sudden, you are the mother of the most hated man in America?”
Each of the five main characters is brought to life in stunning detail. It is a feat to take a reviled villain—someone seen as one-dimensionally evil—and make him sympathetic. “Part of the reason he might seem sympathetic is because you see him from the perspective of these women who loved him,” says the author. “These women were amazing in their own right. I don’t want to project feminist perspectives on women who didn’t have them, but I think there were many strong women in those days, who found effective ways of working within the system that they had to operate within, that helped them self-actualize themselves.”
These four women are compelling examples of the women of their time, who often had to fend for themselves with limited support from either husbands or the law. “It was by advocating for the men in their lives who were away at the war that they developed these skills. I thought that was very interesting, this nascent feminist movement, that came to be later. All these skills they developed, they had them when they needed them.” It’s always been an interest of hers, as readers may remember from Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. “People who have traditionally been marginalized—their stories are significant. That’s really what I try to bring out, that’s what I’m most interested in exploring.”
Chiaverini signs today, 10–10:30 a.m., at Table 1 in the Autographing Area.
This article appeared in the May 12, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.