Karla's Reviews > The Unlocked Book: A Memory of John Wilkes Booth

The Unlocked Book by Asia Booth Clarke
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Jul 14, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: actors-and-actresses, non-fiction, biographical, booth-family
Read on July 14, 2012

I suppose if anyone was in a position to give the other side of the story to John Wilkes Booth's character, it would be his sister Asia. They were close in age and romped around the Booth Maryland farm together while the older sibs were off getting married or traipsing around the country on a long path to theatrical fame, prying the bottle out of dad's hand between acts while barnstorming in shitty mining towns and along the Mississippi (poor Edwin).

"So Dad, think you could be sane & sober once we hit 'Frisco? I'm beat."

And despite being biased by a sister's love, her portrayal of John Wilkes as a child and young man is endearing and plausible. Even criminals loved their favorite pet and had sweethearts. They've got their typical, normal human foibles that immense crimes like assassination tend to overwhelm. Who knows, maybe the Fall of Richmond really did push Wilkes over the edge into that rash act to "save" the South. I guess he meant well, but it was a really dumbass stunt. But for him, Reconstruction might not have been so vicious and punitive. Whoopsies.

"Sorry about that, guys. But I killed him with such pizzaz. And broke my leg, too. Ow."

Even though Asia's reminiscence is full of casual racism (those darkies love their sweets, and they're never serious about anything!), the circumstances under which she wrote it are pretty damn sad. After the assassination, the family went into a bunker mentality (justifiably).

Edwin burned whatever he could get his hands on and told everyone to forget John except as his most innocent childhood self. With lynch mob mentality running high against the very public Booth family, and all actors in general, keeping a low profile was the main goal. Plus Edwin's fiancée's parents called off their daughter's engagement with him, which probably - who knows? - made possible his disastrous second marriage with the insane Mary McVicker.

"It's called 'nervous temperament', if you please. Or, you know, raging postpartum depression."

At any rate, it was another cherry on the shit sundae that was The Life of Edwin Booth.

Asia's less-than-wonderful husband John Sleeper Clarke contemplated a divorce to distance himself from the whole thing (but had a re-think later). With so many letters and effects of her dead father already destroyed by his grieving widow, I'm sure Asia wanted to cling to whatever memories and articles of her brother she could hide. I felt really sorry for her.

The main portion of this book consists of Asia's densely-worded and disjointed memories of Wilkes. The manuscript was written in a book with a lock and contained newspaper cuttings and letters that she willed to the editor's father upon her death in 1888, to publish whenever he saw fit. That time didn't come until 50 years later, when all concerned in the sad drama were dead.

"We were cursed. Currrrrrsed!"

The family was never conventional - Edwin's grandfather Richard Booth was quite a character - and all the crap that got piled on so many of them over the generations beggars belief, but truth is stranger than fiction.

I'm glad that Asia wasn't so reticent about her feelings (screaming racism included). One wishes that Edwin's melancholy hadn't been so immovable. If anyone needed to purge his demons, it was he. But he apparently internalized everything and only had a very few intimates to whom he confided. But I doubt he ever confided everything.

To leave things on a warm and fuzzy note, there was a great quote in one of pater Junius' letters included at the end of the book, a rambling list of orders to his father Richard who was living on the Booth farm:
Tell Junius [Jr] not to go opossum hunting, or setting rabbit-traps, but to let the poor devils live. Cruelty is the offspring of idleness of mind and beastly ignorance, and, in children, should be repressed and not encouraged, as is too often the case, by unthinking beings who surround them.
4 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Unlocked Book.
Sign In »

Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Jackson (new)

Jackson Burnett Karla,
What's your take on this book so far?

Jackson Burnett

Karla Her prose is a little dense & she unfolds her memoirs kinda disjointedly, but it's an interesting and sentimental take on Booth. Which is only logical, considering she was his sister and shared his Southern sentiments. There are quite a few bigot bombs here and there. The racism is so casual.

Given her history of depression, family insanity, a bad marriage, and harbored & secretive worship of her infamous brother, I think she'd be a psychiatrist's dream. Or nightmare.

message 3: by Jackson (new)

Jackson Burnett Thanks.


message 4: by Kerrie (new)

Kerrie Very nice job injecting some levity into the Gloomz n Doomz of Family Booth. :D

message 5: by Tammy (new)

Tammy Walton Grant The book sounds like a bummer, but as always I like your review. :D

PS: what made you pick this up: is it because of the historical aspect or the fact that Booth was an actor (and methinks you like reading about that stuff)?

message 6: by Sarah (new)

Sarah Random & unrelated to the Booth lore, but...

I love Mary McVicker's dress in that photograph. :D

Karla Kerrie wrote: "Very nice job injecting some levity into the Gloomz n Doomz of Family Booth. :D"

Thanks. It's the only way to not want to slit your wrists when reading about them. :P

Karla Tammy wrote: "or the fact that Booth was an actor (and methinks you like reading about that stuff)? ."

Bingo. I've got a handful of 19th c. acting peeps I'm hardcore about. Edwin Booth (& fam) is one of them.

message 9: by Karla (last edited Jul 15, 2012 04:13AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Karla Sarah wrote: "Random & unrelated to the Booth lore, but...

I love Mary McVicker's dress in that photograph. :D"

Ain't it pretteh? Too bad she died a screaming, raving loon. Definitely in need of lithium pills.

Here's the full pic to see more of her dress. (That other woman is his daughter Edwina with Wife #1, the wife he apparently gave the clap to, which eventually killed her.)

And another dress (wish there was no damage on Edwin's face. Grr...):

message 10: by Tammy (new)

Tammy Walton Grant Lawsy! She looks like she's wearing draperies. That fringe in the second pic is huge.

She was a pretty thing, though. Died a screaming loon, you say?

message 11: by Sarah (new)

Sarah She WAS a pretty one. What was her issue? Bipolar or something more loony?

message 12: by Karla (last edited Jul 16, 2012 02:32AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Karla She was an actress of little talent (from what I've read) and she and Booth "met" while playing Romeo & Juliet and probably got fantasy & real life confused. (What is it about actors?) I think he also wanted to get another mama for his daughter. About a year after they got married, she gave birth and it lived only a few hours and things went downhill from there. Postpartum, I'd say. Since Booth was a depressive and wasn't the best problem solver, I don't think that helped her any. Probably fed off each other.

message 13: by Sarah (new)

Sarah How interesting. It seems actors have never been able to peel reality from fantasy in the romance department. :P

Postpartum sounds reasonable. From what I've gleaned via Victoriana, that was one of the ailments lumped into generic hysteria or manic-depression instead of being recognized as a separate condition with a legit cause.

A houseful of depressives is a houseful of gloom. I feel sorry for his daughter. o__O

Karla I think she actually turned out somewhat normal, amazingly. He doted on her.

And yes, I think actors have always shut off their brains when they start spoutin' the luv stuff.

back to top