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Booth: A Novel Hardcover – December 29, 1997

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Against the background of the plot to assassinate President Lincoln, first-time novelist Robertson presents a fascinating portrait of the family that John Wilkes Booth seduced and manipulated into assisting him in his heinous crime. Reluctant conspirator John Surratt narrates the progression of his friendship with Booth during the days leading up to Lincoln's assassination in April 1865. Booth confides to Surratt his plan to capture Lincoln and end the Civil War; then he presses Surratt into mapping his escape route. Suspense builds as the fateful day of the shooting draws near and an affair is intimated between Booth and Surratt's mother. Surratt is haunted all his life by the gallows death of his mother and by her final words, "Oh, please don't let me fall." The narrative is choppy in places and the style unpolished, but Robertson's masterful characterizations make up for his stylistic weaknesses. Sure to be popular with both fiction and nonfiction readers; recommended for all libraries.?Molly Gorman, San Marino, Cal.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

A first novel about the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln, riveting in its depiction of time and place but less convincing in its characterizations. Robertson, the author of a well-received biography of the longtime political powerbroker James F. Byrnes (Sly and Able, 1994), knows how to do research. His portrait of wartime Washington in the last days of the Civil War is filled with vivid particulars, and his rendering of the hustling spirit of the town, with almost everyone angling for money or power, seems just right. The narrator who describes the scene, though, is more problematic. John Surratt is an old man as the novel begins, looking back over the awful events of his youth, at their heart his involvement with the charming, manic actor John Wilkes Booth. Surratt was in fact the only figure believed to be closely associated with Booth's plot who was never imprisoned. Fleeing the country after Lincoln's death, he was caught and returned in 1867 but found not guilty after a turbulent trial, while his own mother was among those tried and executed in the aftermath of Booth's crime. What's jarring here is that Robertson, who starts out seeming to want to plumb the plot and Booth's enigmatic character, ends up devoting much of his story to a defense of Surratt's character, presenting him as an innocent manipulated by a variety of cunning figures, including not only Booth but Sarah Slater, a young actress who may have been a Confederate spy, and the self-styled super-spy for the Union, Allan Pinkerton. Lost in all of this motion is any real sense of Booth's character or motives, or any feeling for the outcasts who became his followers. The backgrounds against which the action is played out are grimly realistic, many individual scenes have power and originality, but the characters themselves remain flat, gaudy, rather melodramatic. Lively, colorful, but finally an uncomfortable mix of fact and fancy. (Illustrated with 12 b&w period photographs) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st Anchor Books ed edition (1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385487061
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385487061
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,014,832 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.1 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Lev Raphael on August 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
One man involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln was acquitted. Based on contemporary diaries, reminiscences, and court transcripts, biographer David Robertson attempts to tell lowly John Surratt's story in the historical novel Booth, set in 1916 and in the last days of the Civil War.
The action begins as D.W. Griffith is premiering his 1916 movie "Birth of a Nation" in Washington, D.C. where he arranges a meeting with the aged Surratt, who has long kept silent about his role in Lincoln's death. Griffith, a publicity hound, would like to get Surratt on film sharing reminiscences and photographs of the Civil War. For Griffith, Surratt is pure gold: a chance to further claim the spotlight and publicize his film.
But Surratt is torn, having lived most of his adult life anonymously after the tragic events surrounding Lincoln's assassination. Through his diary, we learn exactly how he was drawn into the conspiracy in 1864, and the tale takes some exciting and even grotesque turns before reaching its predictable conclusion in 1916.
Character development is not Robertson's strength and the book is filled with stick figures, including Surratt's own as an ingenuous young man. More importantly, until near the end, Booth himself is pretty much an enigma in the book. Though he is supposed to be charismatic, Robertson hasn't demonstrated that by giving us a rich, living character.
The author's skills as a writer lie elsewhere: He brings to teeming and fascinating life a Washington DC (Washington City in the book) as distant to us in its own way as Ancient Rome. It's a city with a half-finished Washington Monument and a Capitol dome under construction.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Budman on May 22, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Most (though clearly not all, judging from previous comments here) Civil War and Lincoln buffs will applaud David Robertson's debut novel, which rescues a friend of John Wilkes Booth from obscurity and places him at center stage. Robertson brings to life John H. Surratt, tried as a co-conspirator and acquitted -- two years after his mother was convicted on the same charge and became the first woman to be hanged by the U.S. government. But "Booth" is a book for even readers with no special interest in the Civil War. It opens a fascinating window onto those turbulent times and offers insights -- though, granted, fictional ones -- into a story whose ending everyone already knows.
The novel opens with Surratt's 1916 New York Times obituary and then shows us diary entries he had written a few days before. In his initial entry, Surratt reveals that he has been plucked from shipping-clerk obscurity by none other than D.W. Griffith, who wants to put the reminiscences of the long-forgotten historical figure on film for an epilogue to his new movie, "The Birth of a Nation." He considers Griffith's proposal: "Perhaps," he writes, "it was time to tell the full truth about the Lincoln assassination." And with that, the septuagenarian opens up his diaries from the fateful months of 1864-65, offering up the observations and narrations of his younger self.
At 21, already a failed playwright, Surratt has just landed a job as a photographer's assistant that both affords him gainful employment and helps him avoid the draft. It was a strong recommendation by his friend Booth (one of the country's most popular actors) that got him the position, and, as he finds out, the favor comes with strings attached.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 19, 1998
Format: Audio Cassette
Thankfully, I borrowed this book from the local library. Robertson has little skill as a novelist and obviously is attempting to capitalize on the success of literary historical thrillers like Caleb Carr's two recent books. Problems I have: 1. The narrator is a dullard, a naive and uninteresting photographer wannabee who is constantly astonished and amazed by the actions of everyone around him. 2. The attempt to incorporate the metaphor of photography throughout the novel (the 2 epigrams at the novel's start hint at extensive use of this device) has potential but in the hands of this slipshod and unimaginative writer is maddening. 3. John Wilkes Booth, the title character, is not made full use of and when present is as uninteresting as Surratt, the photographer.
Those interested in the real facts would do well to read a brief and far more exciting account of the life of one of Robertson's peripheral characters, William "Lewis" Powell, in the Spring edition of DoubleTake magazine. Powell was one of Booth's cronies in the kidnap plot and according to the author of the DoubleTake article was a violent, complex young man. Certainly the adventures Powell lived would make better reading in the novel, but Robertson consigns Powell to the background and, strangely and ironically, strips him of his complexity and violence transforming him into a nearly invisible man. I'm halfway done with BOOTH and most likely will return this failure to the shelves of the library where, hopefully, it will be forgotten.
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