Book Review: Fates and Traitors

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Thank you Netgalley and Dutton publishers for sending Fates and Traitors my way. I chose a bit of an interesting time to read the story of John Wilkes Booth didn’t I? (As an aside I waited until the library had the e-book available, as I can’t read books in the PDF format – that’s been a long established rant – so it only came available after the US election results.)

But doesn’t that timing make for more interesting reading? This Canuck knows probably what most would know about John Wilkes Booth – he’s the assassin of President Lincoln. And that would be about all I know, in depth really.  Fates and Traitors is the story of JWB told from the perspective 4 key and prominent women in his life. I thought that was a great structure, although there were times I thought his reasoning didn’t come through as strongly as I had hoped. I would have liked more insight into those reasons and found this wasn’t a particular strength to the story. But, I was still very impressed with the structure and the perspectives of the four women: his mother, his favourite and closest sister, Asia, his “secret” fiancé, Lucy Hale, and Mary Surratt, the Confederate widow that was hanged for her role in the assassination plot.

I was intrigued to read about JWB and to hear a story from the perspective of the man that was so anti-Lincoln that he planned his killing. It was interesting to hear from a perspective that felt Lincoln was a tyrant, as Booth did, and the thoughts he was destroying the values and way of life of the South, and how badly he wanted those protected and not dismantled by Lincoln. The parts I found most interesting were in the very beginning – the prologue – with Booth trapped in a barn, surrounded, and eventually shot. He doesn’t die instantly so we hear his pleas, some of his reasoning and what he wants his beloved mother to understand. And, the very end where the aftermath of Booth’s actions fall on his family, fiancé, and co-conspirators.

After the prologue, it moves to the perspective of his mother and their family story (which was very interesting!), to his sister Asia, and onto another interesting aspect to Booth’s life – his “secret” fiancé, Lucy Hale. Hale’s father was a member of Lincoln’s administrative and herself a steadfast devotee of Lincoln. So how and why was she involved with JWB, a man that so despised Lincoln? But, so many of these parts were where I felt Fates and Traitors lagged. There was a lot of dialogue and filler, but not really delving so much into the meat of Booth’s reasoning and plot. It wasn’t as tightly told as I was hoping for.

Yet, at the end and following John Wilkes Booth’s death, Fates and Traitors becomes quite engrossing as it details the pain and suffering and shame he brought down upon his family. The endless interrogations and jail time they faced because of his actions. His actions were never really known or understood by his family. They had no idea he was plotting to kill the president, but they were nonetheless interrogated, cast out, and a great shame came down upon the once famous Booth name -for other and better reasons – due to his father’s life highly successful stage career. It forced his family into hiding, his beloved sister was divorced by her husband, who was once a very close friend of JWB’s, and Lucy Hale set sale for England to avoid the scandal. Mary Surratt was executed for her role in the plot – she was the first woman to be executed by the US federal government.

John Wilkes Booth longed to be famous, he spoke often of making a lasting mark and in the end, he was granted his wish, yet it caused so much pain and suffering and shame to those he loved so dearly that were left behind to deal with his actions. Not to mention the indelible mark he made on American history.

Overall, Fates and Traitors was a very interesting read.

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