Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Dawson's Fall by Roxana Robinson

Dawson’s Fall
by Roxana Robinson 
Paperback Published September 2020 by Picador 
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review 

Publisher’s Summary: 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. 

My Thoughts: Back in 2009, I read Robinson’s novel Cost and remember being impressed with the way she handled the difficult subject of addiction. I’ve thought a lot about that book in the past couple of years and wonder how my impression of it might be different now, given what has happened in my family. I can’t help but think that I might have been more impressed with Robinson’s work. But you know how loathe I am to reread a book, given how many books I have yet to read for a first time. So when this book came to my attention, I decided this was my way to give Robinson another try. I’m glad I did. 

Robinson mixes newspaper articles of the time and diary entries from her great-grandmother’s journals into her novel to great a wonderful blend of fiction and fact. Those pieces from her family’s history served to both set the stage for her story but also to move the story along. There’s an element of thriller to the book, a feeling that you are watching a disaster unfold without being able to stop it. Dawson believes himself a true Southerner but some of his beliefs put him at odds with those who were born and raised Southern while others put him at odds with the very people who will ultimately judge him. I appreciated that where Robinson might have sugarcoated her family’s story, only glorifying her great-grandfather’s success, she gave readers fully realized characters. That feels like that was essential in the end, but a less honest historian might well have crafted a work around so avoid the ugly parts of her family history. 

The hardcover book came out in 2019. A lot has changed in our country since then that, surprisingly, make this book more timely than it might have seemed initially. Dawson is a man of his time and place, a man that fought for the South in the Civil War and now living in Charleston in the aftermath of that conflict. He’s a man of strong principles and a moral compass that frequently puts him at odds with his newspaper’s subscribers. Sometimes those same principles are at odds with Dawson’s own beliefs, particularly when it comes to blacks, and that’s where this book seems to echo some of today’s rhetoric. That tied the book into other nonfiction books I’m reading that deal with the South in the years after the Civil War and I very much enjoyed seeing what I’ve learned set into a novel.

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