Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

This book is dedicated to three people who, as teachers, exemplars, and advocates, changed my life. All three are gone now, but my gratitude will last as long as I do.

   To Chalmers Johnson, Ursula Le Guin, and Marian Wood.

America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.

    —Frederick Douglass

    We cannot escape history.

    —Abraham Lincoln


The people who live there call it the farm, though it’s half trees, woodland merging into dense forest. A two-story, two-room log cabin has been brought from a nearby acreage on rollers greased with pig lard. The walls are whitewashed, the shutters painted red. A kitchen is added on one side, a bedroom and loft on the other. The additions stand off the main room like wings. There is nothing special about this cabin with its low ceilings, meager windows, and canted staircase, and moving it was a costly business, every local ox and man hired for the job. This all left the neighbors with the impression that the new owner was a bit crazy, a thought they never had cause to revise.

The relocation puts the cabin beside Beech Spring, where the water is so clean and clear as to be invisible. But, and the neighbors suspect that this is the real purpose, it’s also a secret cabin now, screened from the wind and the road by a dense stand of walnut, oak, tulip, and beech. Still, since everyone in the neighborhood helped move it, everyone in the neighborhood knows it’s there.

The nearest neighbors are the Woolseys on one side and the Rogerses on the other. Bel Air, the county seat, is three miles away; the big city of Baltimore some thirty miles of rough coach road to the south and west.

Improvements are made. Orchards of peach, apple, and pear are planted; fields of corn, cane sorghum, barley, and oats; a kitchen garden of radishes, beets, and onions. A cherry tree sprig is set near the front door and carefully tended. A granary, stables, barn, and milking shed are built. Three large, black Newfoundland dogs arrive to patrol the grounds. They are chained during the day and loosed at night. The neighbors describe these dogs as savage.

Zigzag fences are erected or repaired. The mail is delivered on horseback once a week, thrown over the gate by a postboy, who whistles through two fingers as he passes, driving the dogs to a frenzy of howling and rattling chains.

A secret family moves into the secret cabin.

* * *

Sixteen years pass. The family grows, shrinks, grows. By 1838, the children number at nine, counting the one about to arrive and the four who are dead. Eventually there will be ten.

These children have:

A famous father, a Shakespearean actor, on tour more often than at home.

A paternal grandfather, skinny as a stork, with white hair worn in a single braid, his clothing also fifty years out of fashion, breech trousers and buckle shoes. He’s come from London to help out during their father’s long absences. He was once a lawyer, treasonably sympathetic to the American revolutionaries, enthusiastic for all things American. Visitors to his London house were made to bow before a portrait of George Washington. Now that he lives here, he hates it. He likens the farm to Robinson Crusoe’s island, himself a marooned castaway on its desolate shore. He’s rarely sober, which makes him less helpful than might have been hoped.

An indulgent mother. A dark-haired beauty with retiring manners, she’d once sold flowers from her family nursery on Drury Lane. She’d first seen their father onstage as King Lear and was astonished, when meeting him, to find that he was young and handsome. He’d had to perform the Howl, howl, howl speech right there in the London street before she’d believe he was the same man. “When will you spend a day with me?” he’d asked within minutes of learning her name. “Tomorrow?” and she’d surprised herself by saying yes.

During their brief courtship, he’d sent her ninety-three love letters, pressing his suit with his ambition, his ardor, the poems of Lord Byron, and the promise of adventure. Soon enough, she’d agreed to run away with him to the island of Madeira, and from there to America.

Perhaps adventure was more implied than promised outright. After they’d left their families in England, after they’d had their first child, after they’d arrived in Maryland and leased the farm on a thousand-year lease, after he’d arranged to move the cabin onto it, only then did he explain that he’d be touring without her nine months of every year. For nine months of every year, she’d be left here with his drunken father.

What else could he do? he asked, leaving no pause in which she might answer; he was a master of timing. He needed to tour if they planned to eat. And clearly, she and the baby couldn’t come along. There is nothing worse than an unhappy, complaining shrew for a wife, he’d finished, by way of warning. He didn’t plan on having one of those.

So here she’s been, on the farm, for sixteen years now. For seventeen years, almost without break, she’s been either expecting a baby or nursing one. It will be twenty continuous years before she’s done.

Later, she’ll tell their children it was Lord Byron’s poems that tipped the scales. She’ll mean this as a caution but she’ll know it won’t be taken as such. All her children love a good romance.

None of the children know that they’re a secret. It will come as quite a shock. They’ve no cause for suspicion. Much like the secret cabin, everyone they know knows they’re here.

Lincoln and the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions

Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.

—Abraham Lincoln, 1838

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