Saturday, June 15, 2019

Dawson's Fall by Roxana Robinson, a timely novel of the Reconstruction-era South

Robinson’s documentary novel intermingles fiction and family memoirs, period editorials, letters, and journal entries in its penetrating rendition of key moments during the lives of her great-grandparents, Frank and Sarah Morgan Dawson. Their characterizations and strong principles are clearly etched throughout; both were outliers in their time yet inextricably defined by it.

English-born and a defender of the rule of law, Dawson is moved to join the Confederate Navy; he later rises to become a prominent Charleston newspaper editor, whose progressive writings championing African Americans’ rights and civic participation make him unpopular. Raised in a Louisiana family brought low through loss, Sarah is a talented writer all-too-aware of women’s social inferiority. The novel’s suspenseful second half details a disturbing incident involving the Dawsons’ neighbor and governess.

While the patchwork approach means the narrative isn’t exactly smooth, it proves unyielding in its timely themes, with many depictions of how white men’s seething resentment erupts into racist violence and how Southern codes of honor and toxic values, particularly slavery, corroded individual lives and the national character.

Dawson's Fall was published by FSG in May, and I reviewed it initially for Booklist's May 1 issue. When I first started reading it, I realized the characters felt familiar but couldn't pinpoint why. Later on, I remembered it was because the central character in another book I'd reviewed over a decade ago, William Baldwin's A Gentleman of Charleston and the Manner of His Death, was also based on Frank Dawson, although in that book he was called David Lawton, and his family was also fictionalized there. I found Robinson's to be the better novel of the two.

Sarah Morgan (later Dawson) was the author of A Confederate Girl's Diary, a six-volume set of journals first published in 1913, and which has become a key primary source about the Civil War experiences of Southern women. Read more about it at Documenting the American South.

For more background to the novel, read Robinson's interview with Publishers Weekly, in which she addresses her family history, research, and weaving history into fiction ("I made up almost nothing," she says).


  1. This sounds fascinating stuff! And based on real people, you say? Amazing!

  2. Yes - their lives were so dramatic that they don't need any fictional embellishment. You can google for more information if you want, and if you don't mind spoilers :)