DAWSON'S FALL. By Roxana Robinson. Sarah Crichton Books (FSG). 352 pages. $27.
For authors, literary ancestors can be daunting. In an op-ed for The New York Times in 2011, novelist Roxana Robinson described the emotions spent avoiding, and finally coming to terms with, the “little book” written by her great-aunt Hattie, known to the world as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s "Uncle Tom’s Cabin."
But Robinson has other literary antecedents to contend with, as well. Not just related to "the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War" (a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln), she’s also descended from a woman writer who suffered agonies during it; she’s the great-granddaughter of Sarah Morgan of Louisiana, whose “little book” "A Confederate Girl’s Diary" has, like Stowe’s, become an American classic.
Sarah Morgan is one of the main characters vividly and sympathetically brought to life in the pages of Robinson’s novel "Dawson’s Fall." Of interest to Charlestonians is the fact that Sarah Morgan married the man known as Francis Warrington Dawson. Dawson also was a writer, and if he is not as remembered or revered today as Morgan or Stowe, he nevertheless stirred the South, and this city in particular, as founder and editor of the ancestor of this paper, The News and Courier.
With his leaving England to enlist for the Confederacy, his championing of the New South through his editorials, and his involvement in what was one of the greatest Charleston crimes of the 19th century, Dawson’s is certainly a dramatic story.
Not surprisingly, he has been the subject of one scholarly biography, and he plays a central role in Steven Hoffius’ and Susan Williams’ masterful work "Upheaval in Charleston" about the 1886 earthquake and its aftermath. Long before Robinson took him on as the subject of fiction, other authors could not resist. Undeservingly forgotten Charleston novelist Robert Molloy wrote of Dawson in "An Afternoon in March" (1958), and award-winning novelist, poet and photographer William P. Baldwin felt the fatal attraction in his 2005 "A Gentleman in Charleston and the Manner of his Death."
As diverse, and entertaining as these previous works are, no other writer has tackled the story of Sarah Morgan and Frank Dawson as completely, proprietorially, passionately or reverently as their great-granddaughter. She pulls it off with success and finesse, not needing to offer any ancestor, literary or otherwise, any excuse or apology.
The author of several previous novels and a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, Robinson writes with an incandescent pen. She lights up every scene portraying her varied cast of characters, and she is adept in conveying mood and atmosphere. To these skills, add her deftness as an editor as she weaves in diary entries, correspondence and articles of her ancestors, in some places seamlessly and in others dramatically, and/or cleverly, often to great effect.
A spring morning in the Dawson household on Bull Street begins prosaically enough at the novel’s start, amid some uneasy prophetic stirrings and memories. The past lives of Sarah and Frank, told in alternating episodes, slowly thread together to become something like a fuse that, thanks to Robinson’s matchless prose, burns inexorably toward the novel’s explosive ending.
As a girl grows up in Baton Rouge, and a young lad matures halfway across the world in London, tragedies beset each; in their meeting and moving to Charleston, it seems, finally, they have found solace and peace.
Robinson is too skilled a writer to order events as melodramatically as her great-aunt Hattie did, but make no mistake, both write with a moral compass in hand, both portray humans at their worst and their best. For Stowe, the background determining the fate of her characters is the antebellum world of slavery; in "Dawson’s Fall," it’s slavery’s legacy in the period of Reconstruction that colors everything.
In her op-ed, Robinson wrote of her pride discovering how Stowe took racism as an idea and fleshed it out to make people feel. In a parallel way, Robinson often is at her best in portraying not Sarah and Frank, but the nemeses they face. (Like Stowe’s heroes and heroines, Frank and Sarah are a tad too perfect).
Her journey into the minds of racists, however, and her rendering of their thought processes that have brought them to hatred of, and violence to, African Americans, rings so psychologically true that it can be used as a primer to help understand “the mind of the South,” as South Carolina writer Wilbur J. Cash termed it. So, too, her depiction of motivations that drive some of the scoundrels in the story, such as Dawson’s neighbor, McDow, is unnervingly true to life.
While some historians may quibble with events as selected, and in the depiction of a rosy, almost non-nuanced spin on Dawson’s racial views, they’ll have to admit that a novelist with sure control on her materials is at work here, structuring an entirely plausible version of events that historians and novelists have argued about for years. (In full disclosure, I was one of the reference archivists she consulted; and I am thanked in the generous afterword.)
In long lovely sentences interspersed with shorter, snappier ones, Robinson depicts the often terrifying world Frank and Sarah inhabited in contrast to the love and affection they created between each other, crafting a love story and a tragedy simultaneously. Some set pieces, such as the Hamburg riot, are riveting, showing how a novelist can capture reality in a way that rouses a historian’s envy.
Part fact, part fiction, entirely engrossing, "Dawson’s Fall" in another triumph for the Beecher, Morgan and Dawson families that produced Roxana Robinson.
Reviewer Harlan Greene is scholar-in-residence at Addlestone Library, College of Charleston.