By Tom De Haven
August 19, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Henry and Clara

  • Book

As you might recall from the illustration in your high school history book, President and Mrs. Lincoln were not alone when John Wilkes Booth invaded Box 7 at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Their guests that evening were the daughter of a senator from New York and the man she was engaged to marry.

In the years that followed, the same small twist of fate that made Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone accidental witnesses to Lincoln’s murder eventually, and with equal violence, destroyed their own lives as well. Claiming the novelist’s prerogative to invent and reimagine, in Henry and Clara Thomas Mallon (Aurora 7) has not only retrieved the all-but- forgotten tragedy from history’s footnotes but also turned it into one of the saddest love stories you’ll likely ever read.

Clara Harris grew up knowing she was destined to wed the cynical and moody Henry Rathbone — despite their being raised as brother and sister. (Her father married his mother when both were children.) Their relationship is thwarted for nearly two decades, first by its Victorian unseemliness, later by the Civil War, then by the assassination.

But two years after Lincoln’s death, the lovers finally do marry, even though Henry’s failure to prevent Booth’s attack has become the stuff of Washington gossip. Embittered now, given to cold rage and fits of delirium, Henry begins shocking friends and acquaintances with his tirades against the late President’s memory. As her husband turns stranger, and more volatile, Clara begins to fear for her life. And to question that bloody night at Ford’s. Is it possible that Henry really could have stopped Booth — but chose not to?

This is a transporting, beautifully written novel, as authentic in its period detail as it is in its rich characterizations. Unlike so many writers who tackle historical fiction, Mallon never imposes a modern consciousness on anyone in his huge cast. To a man and woman, these are 19th-century Americans, very different people than you and I, though just as fallible, just as human, and just as vulnerable to a messianic gunman who can step suddenly from the shadows and ruin everything, positively everything. A

Henry and Clara

  • Book
Complete Coverage
  • Henry and Clara