Beginning in the chaotic moments after President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and then taking the reader back before the start of the Civil War, Thomas Mallon masterfully weaves the story of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, whose lives, it seems, culminated and froze in that fateful moment when they shared the box at the Henry Ford Theatre with the President and First Lady. However, the story is much more than the ruination of their lives and the death and gore they witnessed. The reader follows Henry Rathbone as a young man who has lost his father and whose mother is determined not to be alone. Clara Harris has lost her mother, and her father Ira Harris is a politician and thinker. From the moment Clara sets eyes on Henry after the marriage of their parents – Clara was 13, Henry 11 – she knows she loves this dark, sardonic boy. They grow together as the nation swiftly grows apart. Their love survives a war but is very nearly crushed after the events of April 14, 1865 when President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, and Henry was nearly mortally injured. Unlike many books that end after the main action occurs, Henry and Clara continues, following Henry’s mental breakdown and Clara’s fierce determination to pull the man she loves from the depths of his anger and disturbed imagination.
I enjoyed this book for a number of reasons. If you look at the print above, Henry and Clara are the two standing figures on the left. Thomas Mallon takes two people, forgotten by history, and fleshes them out, making them whole and breathing life into their forms. History fascinates me, and although this is historical fiction, Mallon follows letters and historical documents as closely as possible. There are also not many contemporary books of which I am aware that are set during the Civil War. I remember, growing up, reading Across Five Aprils, watching Gone With the Wind, and I know there are a few others. This dirty, contemptuous war captured my young attention. The descriptions of brother fighting brother and the chaos of these untrained soldiers saddened and frightened me, and though the book doesn’t focus much on the war itself, it certainly does look into the political climate leading to the war and Washington’s atmosphere during it. Henry and Clara is a sad account, but it chronicles how immense, public tragedy can forever scar an individual and the relationships he has cultivated.