A cinematic Reconstruction-era drama of violence and fraught moral reckoning
In Dawson’s Fall, a novel based on the lives of Roxana Robinson’s great-grandparents, we see America at its most fragile, fraught, and malleable. Set in 1889, in Charleston, South Carolina, Robinson’s tale weaves her family’s journal entries and letters with a novelist’s narrative grace, and spans the life of her tragic hero, Frank Dawson, as he attempts to navigate the country’s new political, social, and moral landscape.
Dawson, a man of fierce opinions, came to this country as a young Englishman to fight for the Confederacy in a war he understood as a conflict over states’ rights. He later became the editor of the Charleston News and Courier, finding a platform of real influence in the editorial column and emerging as a voice of the New South. With his wife and two children, he tried to lead a life that adhered to his staunch principles: equal rights, rule of law, and nonviolence, unswayed by the caprices of popular opinion. But he couldn’t control the political whims of his readers. As he wrangled diligently in his columns with questions of citizenship, equality, justice, and slavery, his newspaper rapidly lost readership, and he was plagued by financial worries. Nor could Dawson control the whims of the heart: his Swiss governess became embroiled in a tense affair with a drunkard doctor, which threatened to stain his family’s reputation. In the end, Dawson—a man in many ways representative of the country at this time—was felled by the very violence he vehemently opposed.
Robinson (Sparta) bases her formidable novel on the lives of her great-grandparents, exposing the fragile and horrific state of affairs in the American South two decades after the end of the Civil War. Frank Dawson is a principled English Catholic who fought for the Confederacy. But he is committed to promoting equal rights, rule of law, and pacifism in the pages of his newspaper, the Charleston News and Courier, and struggles against the simmering rage and continued violence of many white South Carolinians. He's losing subscribers and facing financial uncertainty. His bright, like-minded wife, Sarah, whose own slave-owning family was ruined by the war, forges on with their respectable if high-minded ways at home, employing white servants and speaking French at the dinner table. But when H l ne, a young Swiss woman hired to care for the Dawson children, becomes enamored with an unscrupulous doctor, resentment flairs and events spiral out of Dawson's control. The interspersed family letters and newspaper articles, while intriguing, seem spliced rather than woven into a narrative that leaps by years before settling on one fateful day in March 1889. But Robinson's descriptive and imaginative prose sings; this book is a startling reminder of the immoral and lasting brutality visited on the South by the institution of slavery.