Monday, October 6, 2014



A gripping historical novel set amidst the confusion and chaos of the Civil War, Booth is the story of the only conspirator in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln who was not killed or executed--a young man who falls under the spell of the charismatic and captivating world-famous stage actor, and is gradually sucked into the vortex of Booth's insidious plans.

The novel opens in 1916, the last year of narrator John Surratt's life. Surratt, who has spent the years since Lincoln's death as an obscure shipping clerk, is approached by D.W. Griffith to read from his Civil War diary in Griffith's movie Birth of a Nation.  As Surratt reads over his diary for the first time in fifty years, the reader returns to the tumultuous days of 1864, and a chance encounter between Surratt and John Wilkes Booth.  Booth, a larger-than-life personality whose appetites, fame, and sheer force of will bedazzle everyone around him, helps to secure Surratt a position as the assistant to renowned photographer Alexander Gardner.  Over the following weeks, Booth continues to lavish attention on Surratt, slowly drawing him bit by bit into his web of intrigue.  By the time Surratt discovers the desperate nature of Booth's true intentions, it is too late, and he finds himself caught up in a firestorm of violence that shatters forever his insulated life and mild ambitions.
(from Goodreads)


 If you are a history geek like me, you are all too familiar with the story. . . A group of Southern sympathizers collaborate to exact revenge on the man that they hold responsible for the collapse of the Confederates hopes of a successful cessation.  The man, who in their eyes turned his back on half of the nation that he swore to protect; a man whose lofty political aspirations defied the very fabric of Southern society by abolishing their peculiar institution. This man was Abraham Lincoln.
 The novel begins a little more than 50 years after the assassination of Lincoln. John Surratt, the son of Mary Surratt (the only female conspirator to be hanged), is contemplating a recent offer to do a filmed reading of his Civil War diaries. While Surratt is perusing the diary that has been untouched since that fateful time, the reader is instantly transported back to 1864 on the very day that he meets John Wilkes Booth, actor extraordinaire! The emotional roller coaster that is Booth is immediately known to the reader, while John Surratt comes across as a naive, easily lead by the nose young man seeking the approval of this semi-celebrity.
 I will begin my critique of this novel by saying I am absolutely appreciative, from a history geek standpoint, how accurate and based on factual events this piece of fiction truly is. I realize there would be no way for David Robertson to have been privy to the intimate conversations that took place in the Surratt house, and his speculation as to the nature of the relationship between Mary Surratt and John Wilkes-Booth is based solely on hearsay. With that said, the layout of events, as well as the precise way he maintained a genuine adherence to the conspirator’s motives and intentions makes this novel not only an adventure in intrigue and suspense, but a real history lesson, too. I very much liked the evolution of the association between Surratt and Booth. At the start, Surratt seems mystified by the larger than life Booth, but as time passes, Booth’s star seems to fade into a drunken stupor, leaving him looking like a washed up has been. John Surratt, on the other hand, has a measure of success working as a photographer’s assistant, but risks it all to help out Booth’s cause.  As the only one in the group not to be convicted and hanged, John Surratt is able to quietly fall into obscurity until he is approached 50 years later to relive these events through the words of his personal diary.
 This is the only book that I have read by David Robertson. I found him to be a compelling and attention holding storyteller, easily blurring the line between fact and fiction. After the conclusion of the novel, he carefully dissects his use of creative license to reveal how he interwove the factual aspects of the assassination by way of diaries, first-hand accounts, official records, and contemporary news articles with his own imagined interpretation of events. I also appreciated the use of actual photographs of the hangings and the conspirators, allowing me to have a visual connection with them as well. I have read other pieces by different authors that make an attempt to do what Mr. Robertson has done with the Lincoln assassination, each leaving me with varying aftertastes. In Booth, I found an impeccably written, believable storyline that made me want to learn more about that time period and the fascinatingly sinister conspirators who played such a detrimental role in American history. For those reasons, I give this book four stars!

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